Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Science teacher Amy Ludoph and I are attending the lecture and book signing for this amazingly well researched book: 
The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcks

Lecture, Book signing and Dinner with
Best-Selling Author Rebecca Skloot
later today at 5 pm Tuesday November 16, 2010
Northwestern University Chicago Campus, Thorne Auditorium, 375 East Chicago Ave.
sponsored by The Chicago Council on Science and Technology & Children’s Memorial Research Center

Skloot’s wonderfully accessible work is now being made into an HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. 
Skloot takes readers on an amazing journey that explores the complicated legacy of one woman’s unwitting contribution to modern science.  
Eric Roston of The Washington Post said the book is “Vivid… A deftly crafted investigation of a social wrong committed by the medical establishment as well as the scientific and medical miracles to which it led.”
Skloot learned about HeLa cells in high school and was curious about their origins.  Skloot spent 10 years researching the life of Henrietta Lacks who was a poor uneducated black woman in the Jim Crow South. In the 1950s who worked the same tobacco fields as her slave ancestors.  When she died of cervical cancer  at age 31, her cells—taken without her family's knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine.  HeLa cells became essential for creating the polio vaccine. They were also used to find out more about cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb. HeLa cells became useful for developing in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. Henrietta's cells, still alive today, have been bought and sold by the billions.
The Lacks family did not learn about her cells “immortality” until more than twenty years after Henrietta's death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent and without any monetary compensation. This book connects to our basic question this year about "What is injustice"? The HeLa cells are connected to the unethical history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control our own tissues. Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. and became highly interested in answers to her questions:
  • Had scientists cloned her mother?
  • Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space?
  • What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen?
  • If her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?
The book is an amazing accomplishment not only in terms of the writing and research, but also in human terms. Skoot's dogged determination to honor the family legacy comes shining through this absorbing narrative.

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