Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This is my 150th post, so I want to talk about something meaningful. I just finished reading a book I started sometime in the middle of spring semester. I got about halfway before my mom borrowed it to read. I brought it on the flight to India knowing I would have plenty of time to read, but I ended up sleeping for a large portion of that time.

At any rate, I finally picked it up again yesterday, and I want to tell you about it because it affected me strongly. It's called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

In it, Rebecca Skloot (who signed my book!) tells the story of the woman behind HeLa cells, as well as her descendants and family. HeLa cell lines all originated from a cervical cancer tissue sample taken from a black woman named Henrietta Lacks. As the first human cells found to be immortal (able to survive infinite divisions rather than stopping at 50 like normal cells), they were - and still are - used in research on pretty much everything. They are the lab mice of the cellular biology field. They could be cultured easily, and are (relatively) genetically identical. Experiments can be done with the knowledge that other researchers would be able to replicate the results (which is necessary to get rid of bias in science) because they can use the same cells.

Yet Henrietta Lacks never knew what was being done with her cells, and her family was never informed. What they were told was made difficult to understand by their lack of education. Nobody bothered to explain exactly what cells were, and how Henrietta herself was not being tortured by all the things being done to the cells. Researchers took blood samples to study the genetics of the cells, and the family thought they were being tested for cancer. When no results were forthcoming, they lived in constant fear that they would develop the same type of cancer and die. Entrepreneurs cultured and sold HeLa cells, but not a cent went to the Lacks family, which was left with no knowledge of this business, still living in poverty.

The story is eye opening. The only cells I have worked with are Chinese Hamster ovarian (CHO) cells, but it made me realize that when working with anything human, you really have to think about the patients. The purpose and possible good that could come from you research may be obvious to you, but to someone who has not dived as deeply into the subject as you have, it can be terrifying.

Biology has advanced to the point that scientists have to narrow down their focus and specialize in order to discover anything new (or so we usually think). This means that understanding most breaking news in the scientific world requires a grasp of a wealth of previous knowledge. So we get a little lazy and stop trying to explain all of our results.

Even I was caught up in this. Science has too many subtleties for the general public, I thought. People want absolutes, and every one of the "maybe"s that is part of the essence of science decreases their belief that science works, I thought. What could I do to alleviate that? There's not really much hope. But that's not true and what is is not all their fault. Science has come to be seen as something elite, something that is not relevant to normal people's lives. Compared to the decades of the Space Race, it's become unimportant. But scientists are partially to blame for not reaching out to make themselves understood.

I honestly think that this book should be required reading for any students interested in going into a biological field. Whether it's research or medicine that that fills up your time in your imagined future, this book will remind you to not forget that even while working for the greater good, you need to give a little time to the smaller good.

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