Sunday, April 18, 2010

Marvelous and Provocative Book about Cancer, Racism, Scientific Ethics and Crippling Poverty, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Tags: Rebecca Skloot, Reviewed NY Times, Dwight Garner, Henrietta Lacks, Ethics in Science, Poverty, Racism,
Rebecca Skloot who grew up in Portland, Oregon is considered one of the best science columnist and this book which I have read about half, shows clearly that highly educated scientists, medical researchers, and journalists can be just as corruptible as anyone else including those on Wall Street. She will have two book audiences here and I will attend the one at the University of Oregon.

Skloot's book is unusual for a non-fiction book because she is able to make science human with all of their flaws including greed, dishonesty, and exploitive tendencies. She switches between the science and the horrible toll the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks whose cells are forever, but she died in 1951 of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer, once detected, are frequently fatal. A very recent study shows that these cancer cells are able to deactivate some Vitamin D needed to activate our T-Cells which can fight the cancer. This problem may apply to all cancers, but data shows that those with enough Vitamin D in the blood and stored in their tissues have a much greater chance surviving all cancers.

The doctors at John Hopkins removed her cancerous cells to try to have living cells without informing her family or Henrietta Lacks. Without these first surviving cells and still surviving now, we might still be in the stone ages for biological science. Dwight Garner, of the best reviewer at the Times I have noticed so far, does a superb job in bringing out what Rebecca Skloot wanted to convey in her book which took about ten years to write.

Skloot first became interested in the HeLa cells when she was a rebel in high school and was sent to an alternative school and forced to go to a community college to fulfil her requirements for biology. When she was in graduate school, a long report was required to get her Masters in writing. She again resumed her interest in these forever cells and found that practically nothing was known about Henrietta Lacks. So Skloot left graduate school to learn more driving in a Honda without a muffler. But she found that the Lacks family had been double-crossed so many times by scientists and journalist that they essentially refused to talk to anyone. Skloot called every day for a year before she finally established contact, but what eventually led to her success was her inherent generosity and genuine caring for the plight of the Lacks family.

Since our society including the science community tends to punish independent people, I am afraid that nations which allow more freedom to be different will thrive. If Hitler won, our world would be a lot less innovative. We allow the best to go their own way whether they are minorities or not in science, but not as much as I like, because funding is now extremely important for science. in graduate school, my thesis topic fought what the establishment supported from Harvard and other places of great influence. Eventually we won, but the battle was bruising.

Rebecca Skloot's book reads more like a novel with humanity exuding from its pores.

Jim Kawakami, April 18, 2010,

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Reviewed by Dwight Garner, New York Times Feb 2, 2010

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