Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

I was mesmerized by this biography of a woman who has touched most of our modern lives, Henrietta Lacks. If you have ever used a cosmetic or taken a medication you are probably indebted to this woman who died a tragic death at the age of just thirty-one. Cells taken from her cancerous tumor were the ones used to determine the most basic essence of human life, the number of chromosomes in our DNA chains.

Taken as part of a biopsy, before informed consent, Henrietta Lacks' cells populate so many laboratories that "one scientist estimates that if you could pile all Hela (the acronym for her cells)cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons-an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing." (Skloot, p. 21) Most cells in culture grew across a glass surface, slowly. She unknowingly participated in a study on cervical cancer headed by Richard Telinde..."like many doctors of his era, TeLinde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge. Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects, as a form of payment." (Skloot, p. 49) Henrietta Lack's cancerous cells grew in suspension stupendously well and would be the basis for mass production of human cell cultures.

Her cells' influence on the eradication of polio, and treatment of disease and production of medications is awesome and extensive and makes interesting reading. Her biographer details these contributions while concurrently describing Henrietta's children's lack of access to medical care. Medical care that today was hugely benefited by their mother's tragic disease and death.

Henrietta's cells helped bring "informed consent" to US health care, but not until the 1960s. A cancer researcher had been directing the injection of her cancerous cells into unknowing patients (causing malignancies so that he could measure their growth rate) for over a decade before three young Jewish doctors refused to inject these cells into twenty-two patients at the Jewish Chronic disease clinic in Brooklyn...scarily similar to the actions of Nazi doctors just sixteen years earlier.(Skloots, p. 157)  It wasn't until late in the 1960s before this prompted the National Institute of Health to require that for a study to qualify for funding-- the study had to be approved by "independent bodies made up of professionals and lapeople of diverse races, classes, and backgrounds...including detailed informed consent." (Skloot, p. 162) Shockingly, it was such a common practice that the researching physician received just a one year "probation" on his medical license!

Various case studies of companies profiting hugely from unknowing patients provides fodder for thought on the ethical, moral and legal ramifications of the tissue samples we so readily provide at our doctor's office. One recent abuse, cited in the book, was a hospital collecting placenta samples routinely at deliveries so that if they were sued for malpractice they could defend themselves on the grounds it was a genetic condition instead. A thought provoking read in an increasingly litigious society.

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