Who knew that cells could be so interesting?

This GUEST POST is written by Eric Green.

One of the joys of project trips is that I tend to read much more than I do back in New York. I am wrapping up a great visit to northern Uganda that included many hours of one-on-one time with my iPad. I actually found myself looking forward to today’s bus ride from Gulu to Kampala because I had several good selections at my fingertips.

On my reading list this trip was Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation, The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and a fantastic book about medicine, science, ethics, and one family’s story about how they learned their deceased mother lives on.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a book that many readers of Chris’s blog will enjoy. Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad sums it up well:

Honestly, I can’t imagine a better tale. A detective story that’s at once mythically large and painfully intimate. Just the simple facts are hard to believe: that in 1951, a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer, but pieces of the tumor that killed her–taken without her knowledge or consent–live on, first in one lab, then in hundreds, then thousands, then in giant factories churning out polio vaccines, then aboard rocket ships launched into space. The cells from this one tumor would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry and become a foundation of modern science–leading to breakthroughs in gene mapping, cloning and fertility and helping to discover how viruses work and how cancer develops (among a million other things).

All of which is to say: the science end of this story is enough to blow one’s mind right out of one’s face.


3 thoughts on “Who knew that cells could be so interesting?

  1. I’d add another voice for to support reading Skloot’s book an Henrietta Lacks and the resulting events. It covers a lot of the ethics issues that Taylor raises and makes quite clear that US law (and the law in most other countries) is that tissue donors and their families still do not profit from their donations. In US law, it’s still the case that, if a tissue is taken from you in a medical procedure (like was done to Lacks) it can be stored in tissue banks and used for profit with minimal consent beyond the fine print in most hospital admissions forms. I’m simplifying some very complex stuff, but read the book to learn more!

  2. As a college student and English major, I had the opportunity to read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of all Maladies” and also learn about Henrietta Lacks’s “immortal” cells in one of my classes. The impact these cells had on the lives of scientists, doctors and patients is unbelievable. However, what many people are unaware of is that while Henrietta’s cells have spawned a multi-billion dollar industry and come to the aid of many, her family has not received many benefits. Readers would be interested to learn that for many years her family was not even aware of the power her cells possessed. This causes a question of ethics to arise. Who is right in this situation? Both sides have valuable concerns. When it comes to medical issues ethical disagreements usually arise.