The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks By Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks was a poor southern tobacco farmer that got Cervix cancer and was treated at John Hopkins. Cells were removed from her tumor and shared all over the medical community without her knowledge. The cells were referred to as ‘HeLa’ and were used to created polio vaccines, gene mapping and many other medical advances. This book focuses on the impact it had on the family, who thoroughly disapproved of the legality and ramifications of the situation. 

Rating: 4/5

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KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. 
  • Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they’d wrap around the earth at least three times, spending more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over 5 feet tall. 
  • Today, when we hear the word clone, we imagine scientist creating entire living animals – like Dolly the famous cloned sheep—using DNA from one parent. But before the cloning of whole animals, there was the cloning of individual cells— Henrietta cells. 
  • Henriettas cells went up in the second satellite ever in orbit, which was launched by the Russian space program in 1960, and almost immediately afterward, NASA shot several vials of HeLa into space in the Discoverer XVIII satellite. 
  • In the early 1900’s many doctors tested drugs on slaves and operated on them to develop new surgical techniques, often without using anesthesia. 
  • John Hopkins was born on the tobacco plantation in Maryland where his father later freed his slaves nearly 60 years before emancipation. 
  • Hopkins made millions working as a banker, grocer, and sold his own brand of whiskey. 
  • In 1873, not long before his death, he donated $7 million to start a medical school and charity hospital.
  • As normal cells go through life, their telomeres shorten with each division until they’re almost gone. Then they stop dividing and begin to die. This process correlates with the age of a person: the older we are, the shorter our telomeres, and the fewer times our cells have left to divide before they die.
  • By the early 90s, scientist at Yale had used HeLa to discover that human cancer cells contain an enzyme called telomerase that rebuilds their telomeres.

  • “Man brought nothing into this world and he’ll carry nothing out. Sometimes we care about stuff too much. We worry when there’s nothing to worry about.” 
  • Because of patent licensing fees, it cost $25,000 for an academic institution to license the gene for researching a common blood disorder, hereditary hemachromatosis, and up to $250,000 to license the same gene for commercial testing. At that rate, it would cost anywhere from $46.4 million to $464 million to test one person for all known genetic diseases. 

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