Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot

Now this is one interesting book! And it's non-fiction. The oldest human cell line and immortality for the unsuspecting woman whose cells have lived on way after her mortal body has returned to the earth. A cell line is basically a line created from one set of cells. They grow it in the labs. Before this particulr cell line it had not been possible to culture human cells in the lab.

I learned a lot reading this one. Tremendous fun too. HeLa cells made it possible to propagate the polio virus, which made the development of its vaccine possible. Like many in my generation, I got my polio shots. Now I learn that I should be grateful to her cell line. It also was responsible for the discovery of the role telomerase in the degradation of cells and the discovery of HPV vaccines. Many have won Nobel Prizes and other research awards on account of this cell line. But it's prevalence and virility have also caused contamination of cultures running up millions in losses.

And where did the cells come from? From Henrietta Lacks, died at 31, mother of 5, in Baltimore, Maryland, against the the backdrop of racial America. She was black, obviously. Before she died of cervical cancer, doctors At John Hopkins managed to get a sample of her cancer cells. It's also a story of human ingenuity too, where pioneers like Dr. George Gey built their own labs, as in literally with their own hands and spent their own money building them. Hers were the first human cells which could grow in cultures - it achieved immortality in the labs. So Henrietta's renegade cells lived on even long after those of her generation with normal cells expired. This is an interesting site about her and her famous cell line.

There was one chapter in the book where Rebecca (the author) brought Deborah and Zakariyya (Henrietta's children who were still babies when she died) to John Hopkins to see their mother's cells. When Dr. Christoph Lengauer invited them to look at the cells under the microscope, Zakariyya asked this question, "If those our mother's cells," he said, "how come they ain't black even though she was black?" And the doctor replied that cells don't have colour under the microscope. They're clear till we put color on them with a dye.

That's what racism is all about. We colour people with our colours. Except that in life, those colours are represented by everything created in our minds. But under the different colour skin that each of us have are the same things and those things will all meet the same end once the telomerase lines run out.
The writer brings us into and through the lives of Henrietta's family. She also brings the reader into a world where human tissues, antibodies, actually just about everything related to us has price tags - opportunities translated to not just cures but also dollars and cents. And it's also a book which touches, even though subtly, that the poor, the underprivileged usually turns to faith because there is nothing else they can turn to. It also highlights the ignorant practices - marriage within the same family and the promiscuity of that generation. Henrietta married her first cousin and he was a womanizer who brought back syphilis and gonorrhea to her. Her children have hearing problems and one was committed to an asylum where she died.

Reading about this makes biology come to life. And it's a pity that such books will not make it to the reading list of many of our children because of the lack of their English. Such books inspire and spark imaginations. If it's firing up the young minds to take up the Sciences, then we should put books such as this on the must read book list for them, not some books that require little or no imagination like the ones you find in the literature list in our secondary schools now.

Definitely a good read. I was glued. Finished it in one and a half day... number 5 for the year! Actually, reading is about the only thing that I can do when I have to sit with my gal while she does her school work... school tests are coming soon, hence the reading frenzy too. 8) Cos that's all I can do in between explanations...

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