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Book Review: Henrietta’s immortal cells

Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publisher: Pan Books, 2010
Volume: 431 pages
Cost: Shs 28,000
Available from Aristoc.

In the 1930s at the Tuskegee Institute, some US department of Health researchers decided to study how syphilis killed – from infection to death. They recruited hundreds of African-American men with syphilis, and then watched them die slow, painful and preventable deaths, even after they realized penicillin could cure them.

The research victims did not ask questions. They were poor and uneducated, and the researchers offered incentives: free physical exams, hot meals, and rides into town on clinic days, plus fifty-dollar burial stipends for their families when the men died. The researchers chose black subjects because, like many whites at the time, they believed black people were a “notoriously syphilis-soaked race.”

The public didn’t learn about the Tuskegee study until the seventies, after hundreds of men enrolled in it had already died. The news spread like wildfire through the black communities: doctors were doing research on black people, lying to them, and watching them die. Rumours started circulating that the doctors had actually injected the men with syphilis in order to study them.

Then there was the Mississippi Appendectomies, unnecessary hysterectomies performed on poor black women to stop them reproducing, and to give young doctors the chance to perform the procedure. Then there was the lack of funding for research into sickle-cell anaemia, an almost exclusively black disease.

Would the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks become a similar case of racism in medicine and medical research? Rebecca Skloot’s book gives the background and development of how Henrietta’s cancer cells took on “immortal” life. Henrietta was born a black tobacco farmer and her cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became a multi-million dollar industry and one of the most important tools in modern medicine.

She died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer. Before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumour and put them in a Petri dish. For decades scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours and never stopped.

They became the first immortal cells ever grown in a laboratory. By now almost any cell culture lab in the world has millions of Henrietta’s cells in small vials of ice. Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer, and those that suppress it. They helped develop drugs that treat herpes, leukaemia, haemophilia and Parkinson’s disease; and they have been used to study lactose digestion, STDs, appendicitis and human longevity.

Henrietta’s cells have done and continue to do immense good. They have saved many lives, and the donor herself would no doubt be glad. But there is another side to the story; that of her daughter Deborah. “I always have thought,” she said, “if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a dime.”

A fascinating account.


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