I'm an avid listener always searching for another good book and willing to share my thoughts with a pithy review.
No mystery or intrigue to report. Just a poor family upset by their inability to profit from the distribution of a family member's unique cancer cells...after her death. It's one chapter after the other of disappointment and complaints. It turns out the cells are very helpful to cancer researchers, but the writer doesn't provide much detail in this area. She just concentrates on the disappointments within the family. It results in a sad read.
This is one of those books with way too many reviews already, so let me add what I can. I came into this book pretty skeptical. Medical ethics is one of the most overwrought of fields, mainly because a vast number of research projects, worth billions and billions of dollars, are all required to employ bioethicists; and every research hospital in the country has to have a team of them on staff who all have to publish. The field's origin story is that of Dr. Robert Knox, a 19th century Scottish anatomist, who made it known that he needed bodies for his dissection lab, the fresher the better, no questions asked. The moral questions that this story raises are perfectly obvious, as are those of the Tuskegee Experiments, for example, in which doctors withheld treatment from poor black men with syphilis in order to study the progression of the disease. There are real, serious bioethical issues out there.
Rebecca Skloot makes a valiant effort trying to convince us that the ethics of the Henrietta Lacks case are similarly fraught, and while I'll agree that there are some interesting twists and turns to the story, I'm just not buying the central premise. Henrietta's cancer cells were taken from her biopsy and grown without getting her consent or even informing her. This was neither illegal nor unusual (in how the patient was treated--the cells themselves were very unusual) at the time. About halfway through the book, in a section on contemporary law, Skloot seems to say that such a thing would still not be illegal today, though she was not 100% clear on this. The doctor who collected the cells did not directly profit off of them--he gave them away freely--though biomedical companies today do sell batches of HeLa cells for profit, and certainly lots of researchers have achieved fame and significant salaries on the back of HeLa research.
The most interesting part of the book is when Skloot explains the history of the development of cell culturing techniques over the 1950s through 1980s, which HeLa was at the center of. Though the same two or three examples of the cell's importance get mentioned again and again throughout the book--that HeLa was shot into space, that it's used to test cancer therapies--the real contribution of the cells to science was in allowing methods for cell culture to be developed on an extremely hearty strain. Though other immortal cell lines have been discovered since, HeLa was the first, and is still one of the easiest to grow. And apparently the HeLa strain was only found after the exact same culture techniques were tried on dozens of other people's cancer biopsy samples without success, an important example of the need for persistence in science. It's not certain just how much HeLa advanced medical science, but clearly by quite a lot. Perhaps the doctors should have gotten Henrietta's permission, but honestly if she'd said no and the doctors had obeyed, the world would be a significantly worse place, and Henrietta wouldn't have lived any longer.
Unfortunately, the book really bogs down in the author's story of her personal interactions with the Lacks family. Parts of this story are interesting--Henrietta's youngest daughter suffered horribly at a mental asylum for indigent blacks in a grisly example of the genuine ethical violations common in medicine at that time--but there's a seriously self-indulgent vibe to the whole thing on Skloot's part. She's the kind white woman dropping in to help the poor black family who have been so mistreated by medicine and other journalists and even a genuine con artist. We get it: you really are well-intentioned, and you're even donating some of the profits from the book to a scholarship fund for the Lackses. This doesn't justify the book being twice as long as it needs to be. Skloot clearly has some talent as a science writer, and I'm eager to see her tackle a subject beyond the one that piqued her interest ten years prior as a high school student sitting in a biology class.
A note on the narration: I like Cassandra Campbell's voice, but she's painfully slow. I recommend at least 1.25X speed.
Audible Member Since 2003
Rebecca Skloot spent ten years of her life researching and writing this book. At the time she had no way of knowing just what she was getting herself into.
The HeLa cell line is one of the most important and studied subjects in the world of medicine and biology, but practically nothing was known about the person from which these cells were named, Henrietta Lacks. In fact, for years even the name Henrietta Lacks was intentionally obscured by the fictitious names of Helen Lane or Helen Larson.
Skloot was a young student at the time she became interested in the mostly anonymous Henrietta Lacks, who died at the age of 31 from a terribly aggressive form of cervical cancer. Her cells were extracted, without permission or informed consent, becoming for all purposes the first line of "immortal" human cells living outside of the host body. The author decided to attempt to put a human face on the donor of the cells which played a vital part in such scientific advances as in the cure for polio, aids research, genetic discoveries, cancer cures, drug developments, to name just a few. However, learning the true story of the Lacks family two generations after the death of Henrietta turned out to be quite the daunting venture as Skloot tenaciously uncovers layers of family suffering, mistrust, ignorance and exploitation.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a real-life story of family and all that goes along with it, good and bad. It is in-part a tale of mystery that walks into real human drama, tackling many difficult issues of racism, bio-ethics, privacy and profiteering.
This book is perfectly narrated and is one of the best audio books I have encountered in quite some time. Do not miss this one!
Avid reader of classics and fiction, history and well-written genre novels. Music lover and huge audiobook fan.
This is one of the best audiobooks I have heard in a long time. FIrst of all the readers are so wonderful it transforms the experience into theater. The story is about science and ethics but is even more the story of a family and how it is affected by the discovery that the cells of a mother that died in 1951 go on living today. The cell donor was 29 when she died leaving five children. Her cell line was the first to be kept alive and replicating after her death from cervical cancer in 1951. Apparently her family didn't know anyone had taken a tissue sample. Her children lacked the money to visit the doctor but their dead mother's cells went to the moon and were part of the discovery of a polio vaccine and many other important medical discoveries. It is stunning to see how badly the subjects of medical research were treated such a short time ago. THis book would be an engaging story for people with many divergent interests. Highly recommended."
What an eye opener. The history of our discovery and exploitation of genetic material is fascinating and more complex than I had imagined. Skloot covers the subject from all angles.The chronological and technical aspect is informative. The ethical observations raised through the study of the Lacks family are both clinical and personal. As we race to find cures for disease and better understand ourselves at the genetic level, we forget that it couldn't be possible without the most important component of the research process - human genetic material.
Worth a second listen. Thank you Ms Skloot.
I'm a country potter, gardener, flute player and tin tinker living with my husband, an electrical engineer & cabinet maker.
This book is worth 2 listens. What of our bodies do we own? How can we say "liberty and justice for all" in a country where corporations own the genes and even the tissue of our brains that allow formation of the words? The author brings Henrietta's family into focus and also provides a great deal of medical and legal background for HeLa cells.
Exceptionally well wrought!! A history, biology and genealogical story cleverly wrapped in well narrated format. I truly enjoyed this listen and appreciated the author's painstaking patience with the Lacks family and the in-depth explanation of the HELA cell's science. It's hard to imagine a biology lesson being presented in any better arrangement. Thanks and BRAVO Rebecca!
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in Baltimore who had cancer in the early 1950's. Her cancerous cells had the ability to be cultured and grown - an ability that is not present in most cells. The rare ability for these cells to be grown in culture provided a cell line that was used in the creation of the polio vaccine and numerous other cures. The cells themselves did not provide the cure, the cells provided a means in which researchers could study a disease and develope a cure. The book was written because for years, the identity of the donor of these cells was only known as Hela. Neither Henrietta or anyone in her family received and compensation or, until relatively recently, any notoriety for these cells. The author fairly protrays that, for the era in which these cells were obtained, there was nothing wrong, illegal or underhanded going on. Procedures such as informed consent were non existent in the 1950's. I was left with the feeling that the Lack's family should receive some compensation for Henrietta's cells. Not because they have a legal right to compensation (which is questionable) but because it is the right thing to do.
Although the book is supposed to be about Henrietta, almost half (sometimes seemed like more) of the book is about one of Henrietta's daughters. This may interest those who develop a personal interest in the Lacks clan, but has little to do with the cells and was distracting.
You will be disappointed if you want to learn about the cells themselves, as the author only provides general descriptions and there is little technical information provided...this book is about people. That being said, there are some very good sections where the truly unethical behavior of doctors using these and other cells is described. They are quite disturbing stories.
The last hour of the book is a discussion by the author over the ethics of cells and tissues and who really owns them.
I hear voices. But maybe that's because there's always an Audible book in my ear.
This meticulously researched and written book is at the top of the heap. The writing, through spare, is perfect for the subject. The narration is spot-on. Where some non-fiction can lag, the author did an incredible job of actually bringing the story along. No matter what you think about medical research or bio-ethics, this book will make you rethink your stand. If you don't care about those issues, reading about Henrietta Lacks alone is worth the time. Simply brilliant in every possible way.
This is partially a biography of Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951 of cancer. It is also a story of medical ethics and science. Reading the story through contemporary eyes I can easily see the injustice of the situation. However, tissue has been taken from me following surgery and other proceedures and used in someway(s) - forever unknown. This was not the Tuskegee syphillis sort of misrepresentation, but the deception (real or imagined; by design or default) had dramatic effects on the family and heirs.
The most moving passages for me involved the adjustments that various family members were forced to make as a result of learning of Ms. Lacks' circumstances. The narrative enabled me to understand the ingredulity and misperceptions linked one to the other.
Other sections relating the ethical issues raised by this situation and the subsequent institutional responses are very timely, contemporary , and important.
Well read, clearly written, and informative. This is a very good book deserving of every listener's attention.