Blog Post

HeLa Cells - Medicine, Race, and Ethics

Medicine / Science Reading Group at the University of Illinois:

I recently came across this book
Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010)

I think this could be a great discussion topic for an upcoming Medicine / Sci reading group.  Here is the blurb from Amazon:

From a single, abbreviated life grew a seemingly immortal line of cells that made some of the most crucial innovations in modern science possible. And from that same life, and those cells, Rebecca Skloot has fashioned in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a fascinating and moving story of medicine and family, of how life is sustained in laboratories and in memory. Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five in Baltimore, a poor African American migrant from the tobacco farms of Virginia, who died from a cruelly aggressive cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. A sample of her cancerous tissue, taken without her knowledge or consent, as was the custom then, turned out to provide one of the holy grails of mid-century biology: human cells that could survive--even thrive--in the lab. Known as HeLa cells, their stunning potency gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the cure for polio. Meanwhile, Henrietta's family continued to live in poverty and frequently poor health, and their discovery decades later of her unknowing contribution--and her cells' strange survival--left them full of pride, anger, and suspicion. For a decade, Skloot doggedly but compassionately gathered the threads of these stories, slowly gaining the trust of the family while helping them learn the truth about Henrietta, and with their aid she tells a rich and haunting story that asks the questions, Who owns our bodies? And who carries our memories?

There is an interview with Rebecca Skloot on NPR's "Fresh Air"

What do others think?  And can anyone think of a video or other media we might pair with excerpts from a book like this?




I herad that interview, and I think this would be a great discussion topic.  Perhaps we could find a reflective laboratory biologist who has used HeLa cells (or something similar) and would be willing to talk about the intellectual and property rights associated with knowledge derived from human specimens.


Kristen - good idea.  Maybe we can talk about the possibility on Wednesday?  Another member has written to say she's really interested in the book as well.

I wish we had funds to buy the book for everyone...  But I guess we'll just go with photocopies.



I have a great article on HeLa too -- by Hannah Landecker. I have the PDF if you want me to email it to you! It's a really great read and synthesizes many of the critical issues in a short piece. This book is on my list for sure -- I'm probably even writing about her in my dissertation! Would love your notes if you take any at your meeting.