Hela

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

Study Guide

In 1951 a poor young black woman, Henrietta Lacks, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Cells taken from her during that exam were used – without her knowledge – to develop the first immortal cell line. The cells, called HeLa, became one of the most important tools in medical research, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more, but Henrietta Lacks, the person who was the source of these cells, was virtually unknown, and her family was never informed about what had been achieved using her cells. Although their mother’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions the Lacks family have received nothing from those cell lines, and cannot even afford health insurance today. This book tells the stories of HeLa and of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants, especially her daughter, Deborah, who was consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. At the same time it traces the history of cell research and examines the ethical and legal issues raised by this research.

About the Author

Rebecca Skloot is an award-winning science writer, with a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative writing. She first heard about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa in a community college biology class when she was 16. As she continued her studies she became fixated on the idea of telling Henrietta’s. She spent over a decade researching and writing this story, which has been translated into over 25 languages and is now being made into an HBO movie. She is also the founder and president of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefitting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.

Note to Instructors

This book combines two different stories: a narrative describing the fate of the Lacks family and another providing a very readable history of developments in cell biology and medical research and a consideration of the ethical issues involved in the use of tissues and cells taken from patients during diagnostic procedures. The author does an excellent job of braiding these two stories together, and provides the reader with a clear understanding of the ethical issues involved in this area. Each chapter begins with a time frame to help the reader understand the historical context of the topics covered there.

This is a general interest book, written at a level that makes it accessible to individuals with relatively limited science backgrounds. The clash of ethics, race, class, and medical research can provide discussion material for classes in a variety of disciplines, including sociology, psychology, modern history, ethics and philosophy, pre-med and nursing as well as biology. Business and pre-law students could benefit from a consideration of the issues involved in the commercial development of biological and medical products and the question of whether biological products should be patentable. The comprehension and discussion questions at the end of each chapter summary are intended to direct the students’ attention to the primary points that are being made, to get them to understand the arguments, and to look behind the information to understand the underlying values and beliefs. An interesting idea would be to get students to keep track of any shifts in their ideas concerning the question of whether or not the Lacks family should be compensated for use of their mother’s cells, and by whom, as they continue reading the text.

Teaching Ideas

In addition to the questions at the end of each chapter, instructors can find a wealth of discussion points and further questions at a website developed by the author: http://rebeccaskloot.com/the-immortal-life/reading-group/ Other material...
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