In 1951, a woman named Henrietta Lacks had a biopsy procedure to treat her cervical cancer. Although she died shortly afterwards, the cells cultured from her tumor became a cornerstone of medical research. HeLa cells have such robust and fast growing properties, that they have been used in thousands of scientific projects – including genetic research, developing vaccines and cloning. Despite this amazing history, the use of these cells without the consent or knowledge of Henrietta or her family is a facinating study of medical ethics. Scloot sets out a well researched and clearly written account of the issues surrounding HeLa cells, including her own interractions with Henrietta’s children and their struggle to come to terms with the legacy of their mother’s cells.
What the Armchair Critics Thought:
The book presented the scientific research and history in an approachable and interesting way. It was sensitively written with a balanced perspective. We wondered if this could happen today – certainly the release of medical information and the right to patient confidentiality is better regulated now. The alternating timelines helped to break up the exposition-heavy scientific chapters with the story of Henrietta and her family. It was nice to see her brought to life as a fun loving person rather than just a collection of cells. We felt that Henrietta should be recognized and the medical and research community should acknowledge that their situation could have been handled differently. The cells are the only thing the family has left of their mother and that should be respected.