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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Book Report Sample)


The task involved writing a book report on with special focus on areas touching on genetics


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, who was born in August 1 1920 and grew up in her grandfather tobacco fear in Clover, VA. She married her cousin by the name of David Lacks and together they had 5 children. She went to seek health care at the Johns Hopkins Hospital after experiencing swelling and pain in her abdomen. She was diagnosed with a highly aggressive cervical cancer and put on radiation therapy. During her treatment and in the course of one of the treatment related surgeries, Henrietta’s doctor by the name Howard, took a sample of her cancerous tissues without her consent and knowledge and sent it to a colleague of his by the name of Dr Grey. Grey had been attempting to grow cells in his lab for a while without success. Unlike all of the other samples, Henrietta’s cells lived and grew rapidly. This in itself was a huge scientific breakthrough.
After a short period of relief and months of painful treatment, Henrietta Lacks dies an excruciating and painful death in 1951. She left behind her 5 children three of whom fell under the care of two cousins who physically abused them. The eldest child died in a mental institution shortly after Henrietta’s death.
News of Henrietta’s cells, by then called HeLa, spread quickly throughout the medical research community. Dr. Grey gave HeLa to any scientist who wanted it for experiments and soon a multi-billion dollar industry arose out of the culturing of HeLa cells and selling them. Dr. Grey never revealed the true identity Henrietta as being the cells’ original donor. No one, including her family, knew that it was Henrietta’s cells which were behind some of the greatest medical advances being realized at the time.
The HeLa cells have helped to develop endless list of medical advancements since then, and continue to develop them even now. Her family only came to learn of the existence of her cells through a long series of events over 20 years later. Even though it is on record that the cells have made billions of dollars for various companies either directly through the selling of HeLa to researchers or indirectly through the selling of drugs and treatments. Henrietta’s family have not made a single cent from it nor benefitted from it in any way. Indeed, at the time the book was being written, many of Henrietta’s children and grandchildren were struggling financially, and several did not have access to health insurance cover necessary to access the care that only exists because their mother and grandmother died.
Book Report
The author notes that at the time Henrietta went to see Doctor Howard, the doctor realizes that the tumor afflicting her is not only malignant but has grown to a point where operation was not feasible as it seems to be growing very fast. The surgeon removes healthy and cancerous cervical tissue cultures and gives them to his colleague doctor grey who is attempting to grow cancerous cells with the hope of using them for future cancer research by comparing healthy and cancerous cervical tissues. It’s disturbing that doctors in a respectable institution like john Hopkins would take samples form a patient without their consent.
This practice also appears to be common routine in the facility with tissue cultures being collected from women coming to seek treatment without their consent and more often without their knowledge. It can be argued that the intentions of Doctors Howard and Grey were good because they were aiming at developing and improving methods for treating cervical cancer in women. The urgency of the matter was precipitated by the fact that this was the time doctors had began to use pap smear to screen women for cancer and hence much remained unknown in this field. But the procedure they followed was wrong ethically because of non-disclosure to the affected women. Proper medical ethics require that a patient be informed and give their consent for such procedures.
In the case of Henrietta, she signed a consent form although it was not an informed consent. She basically signed a form that gave doctors at Hopkins the permission "To perform any operative procedures…deemed necessary" (Skloot & Turpin, 2010). Ethically, this does not constitute informed consent. According to Faden (1986), informed consent is a basic policy in both ethics and law and one which all physicians must honor, unless the patient is unconscious or otherwise incapable of consenting. The patients’ right of self-decision can only be effectively exercised if the patient possesses enough information to make or enable an informed choice.
Dr Grey eventually manages to grow the cancerous cells extracted from Henrietta, this is a major breakthrough as all the other attempts to grow cancerous cell in a lab have failed. The cell are henceforth nicknamed HeLa and sent to scientist around the world for research purposes. All this time neither Henrietta nor her family knows anything as they have been deliberately kept in the dark. Meanwhile scientists around the world begin to learn about the growth of cervical cancer and cancerous cells in particular by exposing them to toxins, radiations and cross infections.Dr Grey goes to the extent of giving interview on TV about his research and the expectations of being able to treat cancer someday. He gives explanations on how the cells were structured and how they became cancerous, but does not divulge the source of the cells nor the methods used to obtain them.
Doctor grey, revelations of coming up with an immortal cell line that does not die draw little interest because of decades of false reports whereby scientist claim that they have made similar accomplishments only for the claims to turn out bogus. An example is the claim by Doctor Alexi Carrel who in 1912 claimed to have developed an immortal chicken heart culture. This however, according to (Hayflick & Moorhead, 1961), was to be proven wrong when it was discovered that cells taken from a normal organ have limited ability to divide and grow. In the case of chicken hearts, it was discovered that they could only be sustained for between 60 to 80 days, after which they undergo transformation, a process whereby cells become cancerous and replicate indefinitely. But the truth of the matter is that Henrietta’s cancerous cells were the first in the history of cell culture to survive in culture beyond a few days and kept right on dividing. This in itself was major breakthrough in the history of genetics and paradoxically Henrietta ended up making one of the greatest contributions ever to the medical field, without her knowledge.
This in itself is an illegality because at the time her cells were multiplying and revolutionizing the medical research Henrietta herself lay dying at the john Hopkins hospital. Despite the great thing that doctors may have been doing in the name of science and medical research. The tissue cultures being used came from someone and that someone should not have been forgotten. That someone was Henrietta.
Because of the ease with which HeLa cells grew, they soon became the standard specimen in most cell based research. In fact the Tuskegee institute built the first factory for producing cells using HeLa and grew thousands of cells a week. Samples of these cells were sold to scientists at about 10 dollars each.
As the cell culture industry grew and began to take off, researchers managed to develop more standardized methods of working with HeLa making great medical and scientific advancements making use of the cells for experimentations. The culture cell industry has developed into a multibillion dollar industry.
As the fame of HeLa grew, Henrietta shrunk. Nobody thought of telling her family about HeLa and chances are that among the numerous researchers working with her cells, it never crossed the mind of any of them that the cells belonged to an individual. This also brings to the fore the debate about organ donation in scientific research. According to Evans, Orians & Ascher (1992), those who normally donate their organs or bodies for medical research purposes often think that they are leaving behin...
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