Tag Archives: the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Parasite Eve: Evolution Threatens

Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena is a bizarre  and utterly mesmerizing book of science fiction horror.  I never would have found it, much less read it, without being pointed in the right direction by a good friend with a unique taste in books.  I am now pointing anyone I know in the direction: Read Parasite Eve!  Long a cult favorite in Japan, the book was made into a movie (clip above) and its premise — the rise of a parasitic mitochondria ready, willing, and — most scary of all — able to take over the world from humans, is the basis of a hugely popular video game.

But don’t let the movie/video game angle keep you away from what is a genuinely well-written book.  Parasite Eve is populated by richly-developed characters, energized by a well thought-out and patiently delivered plot, and amplified by its educational interludes; I learned all about mitochondria, nuclei, organ transplants, evolution, and the culturing of cells (Parasite Eve makes a strange but effective companion piece to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot).

Underlying the activity of the book — the intersecting interests of scientists, patients, and an unwitting host, all held hostage to the overweening dreams of a centuries-old parasite — is a consideration of the role of “work” and “ambition” in Japanese society.  The characters by and far work too hard, spend too little time with their families, and lose touch with the purpose of life.  When a new form of life threatens their existence, the wake-up call is sounded, but is it too late?  Is it too late for all of us to stop, drop, and refocus on what is important in life?  Read this book and the need for reflection will become clear — along with principles of cellular biology.  Live and learn.

Parasite Eve was translated from the Japanese by Tyran Grillo.

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Immortality for the Woman Behind the Cells

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is just as good as everyone (The New York Times, Science magazine, Publishers Weekly, Washington Post, Boston Globe, etc) says it is.  It is the riveting story of a young mother who went to the public ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of a lump inside her body and ended up providing, without her knowledge or consent, the most famous cells in the world, the HeLa cells.  HeLa cells have been used to create the polio vaccine and find cures for cancers; the cells have been taken to outer space, subjected to radiation and viruses, and used for gene mapping research. The cells have been bought and sold by the billions, with profit for many — but never for Henrietta or her family.

The fact that Henrietta was black, poor, and from the South had no bearing on the virulence of her cancer cells, their strength or their endurance, but it had just about everything to do with how her cells were obtained in the first place and how they were cultured, used, bartered, and sold worldwide for two decades before her closest family even knew the cells existed.  Everyone from her husband to her children to her siblings believed Henrietta Lacks, every bit and piece of her, heart, soul, and cells, died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951.  It was not until a news story came out twenty years after her death that her family learned the truth: a part of their wife, sister, and mother still lived on, in millions and millions of cells grown from her cancerous cervical cells.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is so many books in one: it is a mystery, a family portrait, a detailed journey of discovery, both for young writer Rebecca Skloot and for Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah; it is a medical history; a sociological study of a neighborhood, Turners Point, in Baltimore; and a haunting evocation of a tiny town deep in rural Maryland, two steps away from slavery and one step away from oblivion. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a lesson in biology, and an ethical treatise on the questions of informed consent and of who owns cells taken from a person for biopsy, research, or storage. Court cases have been fighting out the issue of tissue ownership, medical institutions have created guidelines, and patient rights groups have written proposed rules for ratification, but no clear law governs the question. At least laws governing informed consent are now firmly in place (relatively recently, I was surprised to discover and spurred by the findings of the Nuremberg trials as to how Nazi doctors used concentration camp inmates for experiments and research).

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is fascinating, riveting, stomach-turning, and heart-breaking, yet it is never melodramatic, never veers from the facts, and never flinches from the truth.  It is a great book with many great women involved: Henrietta Lacks, brave and vulnerable, Rebecca Skloot, brave and curious, Bobbette Lacks, brave and angry, and Deborah Lacks, brave and lonely.