19 May 2011


I am reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot recently.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American lady who sought medical care at the Johns Hopkins Hospital for cervical cancer in 1951. She died of progressive disease eight months later. Nevertheless, her cancer specimen turned into the first successful human cell line - HeLa. With the ability to grow human cells on culture plates, scientists developed the polio vaccine and answered one question after another on genetics and cancer biology. Henrietta’s cells traveled to laboratories in all continents and even to the moon.

Apart from the history in scientific development, the author painstakingly interviewed Henrietta’s surviving family members and reconstructed her life in the book. I was deeply touched by this part. Although I knew some cell lines and specimens I used in research were from humans, the materials in plastic wares felt so cold and unreal. The book serves as a reminder that the patients behind the specimens are after all real people who have lived and loved. The author rightly quoted Elie Wiesel from The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: "We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph."

On the dark side, it should be mentioned that Henrietta never learned of her contribution. In fact, she did not even know her specimen had been taken for research purpose. Back then was a time when research ethics and informed consent were not well developed. To the extreme, Southam from Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research injected prisoners and terminal patients with HeLa cells to see if cancer cells might be inoculated to humans. Luckily, medical ethics and patient protection have come a long way since then. We must never forget the lessons and should thank our patients for contributing so much in our understanding of diseases and treatment.

No comments:

Post a Comment