Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Welcome back, history fans. You might be wondering why there has been such a long gap between posts. The truth is that I needed a break. I finished a book about Hurricane Katrina and followed up by 9/11, and some doses of more Hurricane Katrina. Add onto that an earthquake every other week and a volcano that ruined half of Europe's travel plans, and I just needed to take it easy. So I've been reading the Wrinkle in Time series, along with lots of Calvin and Hobbes comics.

About a month ago, I was putting away some books at Borders when one caught my attention. It was titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The name itself was enough to make me want to read it. But at that point, I had enough on my plate, like 9/11 conspiracies and time traveling with Mrs. Who, Which, and Whatsit. Plus, it was a book about science.

Now, it's not that I have something against science or that I'm afraid of it. I've just had bad experiences with it. For instance, my 6th grade project for the Science Fair was a bathtub alarm. That's right. You could finally leave the room while the tub fills up with water and an alarm would sound when it got to desired amount. I didn't receive a prize for that one. In 7th grade, I was taught by an angry man who had no qualms about making fun of you in front of the class. My 8th grade teacher was a small man with a nasally southern drawl who looked like a bug and was rumored to be a black belt in karate. I took my last science class in my first year in high school. Somehow I passed Chemistry with a C even though I never had an inkling of what I was learning. My steps up to science were simply broken and rotten. The idea of reading a book about science just sounded annoying and complicated.

But as soon as I started Skloot's book, I knew that science had been redeemed in my heart. Not just the story of Henrietta Lacks herself but the writing style and the structure of the book had me floored. The story tip toes science fiction while shoving you headfirst into cell culture history. Then, every time you start to scratch your head, when you've heard enough about cells, Skloot will steer the focus back to the life of the Lacks family, how the dealt with the author, condescending and silent scientists, and confronting the fact that their mother will live forever.

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer. You heard me. The birth of the story is the death of the main character. She died in John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore at the age of 31. Months before she passed away, a doctor took a sample of tissue from a tumor that nested inside of Henrietta. Those cells were taken for a purpose but not with its owner's consent. You see, there in John Hopkins was a doctor who was trying to prove to the world that they didn't understand cancer like he did. In order to run the tests to gather evidence, he needed to experiment on live cells. The problem was that cells from people died after a few days, a week at most. He teamed up with a man named George Guy who was hell-bent on growing live cells. Together, they took samples from every woman who entered the hospital with any case of cervical cancer. And so far nothing had survived. Until Henrietta.

Those cells became known as HeLa cells. They were the first human cells to survive outside of the human body. They are still growing and thriving. George Guy went ape shit and told as many scientists as he could about his amazing HeLa cells. After a few years, the HeLa cells became known worldwide and they opened the door to all kinds of scientific and medical advances. Cell culture was built upon HeLa cells. The field was extremely erratic prior to the discovery and standards were implemented based on research with HeLa cells. The polio vaccine was developed through HeLa. In fact, the man who created the vaccine needed an enormous amount of cells, so some scientists actually built a HeLa cell factory that produced millions of cells every day. Cancer research, AIDS research, chromosome mappings, and countless other important advancements were made possible through her eternal cells.

For a woman who contributed so much to scientific progress, not much credit was given to her or her family. For 25 years, doctors at John Hopkins and around the world handled the cells taken without permission from within Henrietta Lacks without her family having any clue that a part of her was still alive. It was until 1976 when researchers began to panic about the contamination problems they saw in the HeLa cells that Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, was told that her mother's cells were studied worldwide. Most of the textbooks up until then had put the donor's name down as Helen Lane, a misleading pseudonym given by the doctors and John Hopkins. Reporters began contacted the Lacks family, asking them questions about Henrietta. But nobody would answer the family's questions. A poor black family that moved from the tobacco fields of Virginia to the mean streets of Baltimore, no one in the Lacks family quite understood what it all meant. For Deborah, her mother's cells had done good for the world. For Henrietta's sons, it meant that doctors stole their mother's cells and sold them for profit. They deserved some of the money.

That idea isn't entirely unfounded. A profit was made off of the HeLa cells, though not for the doctors at John Hopkins. And the anger and fear of the Lacks boys shouldn't be discredited either. Months before they were told their mother's cells were alive in labs across the world, the Tuskegee syphilis study had just been uncovered. And it was not uncommon for experiments to be carried out on black folks, especially in the 50's when Henrietta was in the hospital. Her sons thought that her cells were stolen, that the racist doctors at John Hopkins had killed her in the process, and that if they weren't careful, any of the children could be next. Oh, also, there was Dr. Chester Southam looking for bodies to inject.

Guess our country didn't learn much from the Nuremberg trials.

But the family couldn't sue John Hopkins or any of the doctors for a couple of reasons. The first was because they didn't have enough money for a lawyer. In fact, the children of the woman who produced one of the most important pieces of medical research couldn't even afford to go to the doctor. At one point, Deborah was slicing her pills in half so they would last longer because she didn't have enough money for a new prescription. The other reason was that the cells didn't belong to them.

A man named Roger Moore was diagnosed with a form of leukemia by his doctor. He started going to a specialist in California about every month or so. On every visit, he was supposed to sign a permission form. He eventually became suspicious and refused to sign it. The doctor went ballistic and demanded that the permission form be signed, even though Moore didn't entirely understand why. He hired an attorney who discovered that the doctor had developed a cell line like HeLa called Mo out of Moore's blood cells. Moore had no idea. His body apparently produced a very rare protein that the doctor recognized immediately as gold. Moore sued the doctor. And lost. The court ruled that once cells left your body, it no longer belonged to you.

Moore had three things over Henrietta. He was white, he could afford an attorney, and he was alive. The children of Henrietta were left to fend for themselves and try to distinguish fact from fiction. Undereducated, talked down to, and overlooked, the children became suspicious of anyone who came asking about their mother, especially after a con man pretended to be a lawyer and nearly took the last remaining money and properties of Henrietta and her family.

Rebecca Skloot went through an incredible journey with the Lacks family. At first, her questions were met with the same suspicion and anger that they showed to anyone who came wanting to know about Henrietta, and eventually became almost a part of the family.

I don't normally recommend books here because I know that most of the people who read this blog would most likely not enjoy books about the Mayflower or about the melting temperature of steel in a high rise building. But this book really blew me away, not only in content but in style and diction. So, history fans, go get your heart broken in downtown Baltimore. And take some science in stride. It's not so bad after all!

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