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Posts Tagged ‘medicine’

This story is true, but it is really quite remarkable.  In 1951, a young poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer.  During her treatment, cancerous cells were taken from her body – without the knowledge or consent of Henrietta or any of her family, and these cells became the first to be able to be grown independently.  Even now, more than 60 years later, Henrietta’s cells (known as HeLa) are still being grown, and have been used in numerous – countless even – medical experiments, to help find cures for cancer and AIDS amongst other diseases.  HeLa cells have been launched into space, used in nuclear testing, and…well frankly, all manner of things.  However, her family did not find out about her cells for years, and when they did, it caused them great consternation and confusion.

This quite remarkable book tells the story of the HeLa cells and some of the incredible advancements in medical science in which they have been used, but it also raises the thorny issue of consent and ownership.  (Who DOES own your cells, and is it right that they could be collected and used without your consent?)  Importantly the book also discusses Henrietta as a person, and looks at the effect that the whole matter has had on her descendants, who are still unable to afford their own medical care (in other words, they might not be able to afford the treatments that their own relative’s cells were instrumental in creating).

I found it a fascinating read.  I was concerned that the science parts might be a bit difficult to understand, but Skloot sets it out in a way that makes perfect sense.  She has clearly conducted a huge amount of research into the HeLa cells, and I felt that I learned a lot about them.  For that reason alone it was a worthwhile read, but what I really liked were the parts where Skloot met with members of Henrietta’s family (and in particular, Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was literally made ill by all the stress caused when she found out about her mother’s cells).

It really made me think.  I mean, REALLY made me think a lot about the issue of informed consent, and ownership of cells.  On the one hand, if people were classed as the owners of their cells and tissues, they could start demanding money for their use (although after reading this book I don’t actually believe that this would happen a lot).  They also may object to their cells being used in particular kinds of research.  Such objections could slow down scientific and medical progress.  On the other hand, it seems fair that people should have the rights over what happens to parts of their own body.  The book does not attempt to answer the question, but it does look at previous cases, and discusses the opinions of many professionals in the field, who take opposing viewpoints.

I really liked this book a lot, and would definitely recommend it.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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The elusive Doctor Annick Swensen has been living amongst the Lakashi tribe in the tangled waters of the Brazilian Rio Negro River, where the women are able to get pregnant and give birth right until the end of their lives.  Dr Swensen is conducting research regarding their fertility and how whatever enables them to reproduce into their 70s, can be used for a fertility drug in the Western world.  But nobody has heard from Dr Swensen for a long time, nobody can contact her in her remote destination, and when scientist, Doctor Anders Eckman went out there to find her and determine how the research was coming along, all that came back was a curt letter informing them that he had died and been buried there.  His colleague Marina Singh is dispatched there to find out what happened to Anders, and to ascertain the progress of Dr Swensen’s work.  Reluctantly she goes, and what she discovers changes her whole world.

I had previously read Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, and had loved that book, so although the synopsis of State of Wonder did not interest me as much, I wanted to read it….and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There is something about Patchett’s writing – it is so descriptive and evocative, without being ‘flowery’ – and her characters are so utterly believable, that I could  not help but be drawn in.

The book is written in the third person, but from Marina’s point of view, and I liked her a lot.  She was a sympathetic character – far more so than Dr Swensen, who (intentionally, I’m sure) was written as undoubtedly brilliant, but headstrong and blunt to the point of rudeness.

The story is detailed and so much happens, and I was carried along by all of it.  The ending was not what I expected, and not really what I wanted (I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that it is somewhat downbeat), but it worked.

Overall I really enjoyed this, and will be certainly be looking out for more books by Ann Patchett.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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