As you may have read in our last blog post, January was a jam-packed month for HealthBid - we had eight projects on the go, in addition to preparation required for many more bids upcoming in the New Year. 

This hasn’t prevented us from discovering new topics of healthcare interest however. This week our bid writer, Georgie read a biography of Henrietta Lacks; whose legacy has long outlived her death in 1951. Published in 2010 by science writer, Rebecca Skloot, the book is set to be released as a film later this year. Here, Georgie tells us why we should all read this remarkable story…

I first heard about ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ in 2014, after my friend lent it to me, but only just got round to reading it recently, after rediscovering it on my bookshelf. Skloot’s biography charts the life of Ms Lacks, a wife and mother of five children, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer and later died of the illness at the age of 31, but has left an indelible medical legacy. Due to their ability to continuously grow, so-called ‘HeLa’ cells have been cultivated and used by scientists for a wide variety of medical applications in the 60 years since her physical death.

However, Skloot’s book focusses on the unethical way in which Lacks' cells were taken without her family's permission by medical authorities. This has yielded an insignificant benefit for the family but an immeasurably positive legacy for the world in the form of treatments for a veritable surfeit of medical problems; from IVF to cancer treatments. An example of these cells are pictured in this post's header image, where they have been used in the production of tubulin proteins.

The author attributes this appropriation to contemporary racism. Whilst it is impossible to believe in 2017, during her treatment in the early 1950s, Lacks was treated on a coloured ward at the then segregated John Hopkins Hospital, and Skloot links the ultimate appropriation of her cells to this prejudice also. In fact, she goes further in connecting the medical authorities appropriation of Lacks’ cells to a long, inhumane history of African American experimentation. She also discusses the current situation of Lacks’ descendants as they have in no way profited from her generous - if unintended - donation. However, despite this, the Lacks family are incredibly proud of their ancestor’s contribution, and have decided to not identify themselves as victims, but further publicise Ms Lacks’ incredible legacy.

Skloot’s narrative spent several years on bestseller lists, and is currently being adapted for the big screen. Her contribution to the debate on tissue ownership is undoubtedly substantial, and made me realise that each of us will have, or will at some point in the future, benefit from Lacks’ unwitting donation to science. For this reason alone - aside from the compelling interviews with Ms Lacks' descendants - this book is a must read.

Image Credit: Zeiss Microscopy

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