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Monday, November 07, 2011

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I'm of two minds about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book has two themes. One is the triumph of science in being able to replicate and culture an immortal line of human cells (albeit one that's cancerous). The other is the story of Henrietta's descendants (and some of her ancestors), whom despite being part of the genetic line that powered many of the modern advances in medicine, cannot afford American healthcare.

The first story is really interesting, though not being much of a scientist, Rebecca Skloot spends as little time as she can on this part of the story and skips all of the interesting nitty gritty research work that enabled scientists to get to this point. What's more, while she passes on popular science stories, "Her cells have been to space!", she doesn't cover much else. She does, however pause to discuss the story about cancer cells being injected into prisoners (all volunteers) to see if they get infected by cancer. Skloot raises interesting questions like whether or not consent is required in order for a patient's body tissues to be used for experiments in furthering science. She explores a few other cases, and points out that the courts have never ruled in favor of the patients.

The second story is purely a human interest story. We get to see the conditions under which Henrietta's descendants were brought up in: under-educated, under-fed, and without access to healthcare. Unfortunately, Skloot spends way more time on the reportage and investigation than on either story, which leads to what feels like an overly padded book by the time you get to the dreary end. Worse, with all this emphasis on narrative, one would expect to get a resolution on some of those threads, but of course this being real life, there isn't any satisfactory resolution. Lacks' descendants never get to point of challenging the system or gaining any understanding that Henrietta actually isn't immortal, in any real sense of the word.

I'm not inclined to recommend this book, even though it does raise many interesting questions. Probably the best approach is to borrow it from the library and skim all the parts that don't interest you.

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