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Book Club: Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Posted on : Dec-03-2011 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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Henrietta and David Lacks, circa 1945.Our next book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It is the story of HeLa cells, the first immortal cell line which has been and continues to be used extensively in many fields, including cancer research, vaccine development and testing, AIDS, aging, genetics, and the effects of radiation on living cells. It is also the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman raised as a share-cropper on a Virginia tobacco farm who died a horrible death from cancer at age 30 in 1951. It is also the story of her family who only found out about the source of the HeLa cell line many years later. (Informed consent was apparently never sought or obtained.)

The book promises many topics for discussion, including medical history, cutting edge cancer and vaccine research, medical ethics and the exploitation of poor people for medical research, history of the underclasses in America, the importance of science education, and the current health care situation. (Many of Henrietta’s descendants can’t afford to receive the treatments derived from her cells, should they develop those diseases!)

Skloot worked with the Lacks family, particularly with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah to obtain their side of the story and to help them in their personal search for answers.

The book has received excellent reviews, both on-line and from friends, and I am looking forward to reading it.

We will be meeting on Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 3 PM, most likely in the same conference room in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard that we have used recently.

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