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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Paperback – 7 Jan 2011

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks + The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer + The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance
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Product details

  • Paperback: 431 pages
  • Publisher: Pan (7 Jan. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330533444
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330533447
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.7 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (352 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,207 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'It's a harrowing story and Rebecca Skloot tells it well.' --Sunday Telegraph Paperback Pick

'An extraordinary mix of memoir and science reveals the story of how one woman's cells have saved countless lives.'
--Daily Telegraph

'extraordinary . . . This haunting account of [Henrietta Lacks'] and her family's treatment unearths appalling racism and injustice beneath the beauty and drama of scientific discovery.' --Guardian

`Compelling story of the unsung woman whose cells have been used in dozens of medical breakthroughs.'
--Sunday Times

Book Description

The internationally bestselling story of a young woman whose death in 1951 changed medical science for ever . . .

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

171 of 179 people found the following review helpful By Lady Fancifull TOP 500 REVIEWER on 21 April 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In 1951 human tissue culture was in its infancy, with researchers struggling to keep cells alive beyond a few cellular generations; normal cells are subject to apoptosis (programmed cellular lifespan/death)

Henrietta Lacks, a poor young black woman, was admitted to hospital in Baltimore in 1951 with an exceptionally invasive and aggressive cancer.

A standard biopsy was taken of her cancerous cells. She did not know that the biopsy would not be used purely for diagnostic purposes, but also tissues would be used for research. No consent was sought for this. In 1951 and indeed still today samples of tissue taken for diagnostic purposes can be used for other purposes - we do not own our tissues once they are no longer part of us.

Cancer cells are not subject to apoptosis. The particular aggressiveness of Henrietta Lack's cancer yielded astonishing results for tissue culture, and within a short space of time the `HeLa' cell line was being used for a wide number of medical research studies world wide, whether testing the actions of many pharmaceutical drugs or as part of the human genome project, and more.

`HeLa' has had profound, beneficial effects on probably most of us who benefit from modern medicine. HeLa has earned millions of dollars and much prestige for many predominantly white male scientists, as patents have been taken out on advances only possible through tissue culture using the HeLa line

However, Henrietta's family were unaware of the rich legacy she left the world - or the rich financial legacy reaped by institutions and individuals. In fact, they remained poor and unable to afford healthcare.
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114 of 120 people found the following review helpful By E. Yong on 13 Feb. 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is without question the best non-fiction book I've read in years. Skloot's debut is thrilling, original and refuses to be shoehorned into anything as trivial as a genre. Equal parts popular science, historical biography and detective novel, it reads as evocatively as any work of fiction.

Skloot repeatedly appears as a character in her own book, narrating her journey from first hearing about HeLa cells in a classroom to her attempts to contact and support the Lacks family. Her narration reveals the trials that the Lacks family have undergone since Henrietta's cells went global, and the sheer amount of trust it took to uncover the details of this story.

But this is really a book about three heroines - the two whose names grace the cover and Henrietta's daughter, Deborah Lacks. Skloot's personal mission to tell this story and Deborah's quest to know about her mother's life and legacy are central parts of Henrietta's story and they form some of the book's most compelling segments.

I write this review as someone who isn't typically a fan of historical non-fiction. Particularly in popular science, I often find descriptions of researchers to be distracting attempts at shoehorning in a human element that is out of keeping with the rest of the book. Not so here - this work has the most human of stories at its core, and never deviates from that important, and often heartbreaking, humanity. When science appears, it does so effortlessly, with explanations of cell anatomy or techniques like "fluorescence in situ hybridization" seamlessly worked into descriptions of the coloured wards of Johns Hopkins hospital to Lacks's hometown of Clover, Virginia.

Skloot's prose is witty, lyrical, economical and authoritative.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Harry on 31 May 2011
Format: Paperback
This book is about a woman who died in 1951. Some cancerous cells were taken without her permission, and these cells helped develop IVF procedures and the polio vaccine. The horrible irony is that while Henrietta made such a great contribution to medical science, her children and other relatives can't afford the medical care that they need, such as hearing aids and basic antibiotics. Hats off to Rebecca Skloot for telling the world this long-awaited tale.
I am not very scientific. When I studied it at school, the majority of it went over my head, but I didn't need that knowledge to help read, what I believe is a very harrowing and thought-provoking book. Rebecca Skloot's passion for Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells comes across dramatically and that's what made the book so good to read. Occasionally, it did get rather 'heavy' to read, but that's only because every scientific procedure is carefully explained so readers can understand what exactly happened with these cells.
A very harrowing tale - not for the faint-hearted!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By leftfooter TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 15 Mar. 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I don't usually enjoy reading non-fiction but the topic sparked a curiosity in me. It took me a while to get to the point of not being able to put this book down, but it did happen! It tells the scientific tale of the HeLa cells but also the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman, from whom these cells were taken whilst she was dying of cervical cancer.

This remarkable book manages to convey the effects of childhood bereavement, poverty and deprivation but also the tremendous human dignity that is shown by one of Henrietta's children, Deborah, in her fight to learn more about what had happened to her mother and her cells. It touches on the prejudice of segregation in America in the early fifties and the resultant poor access to medical care.

We learn about the great advances that the HeLa cells are responsible for, but conversely the havoc they created for biologists working in the early days of cell culture and genetic research. The ethical and legal debate surrounding ownership and patenting of genes for commercial purposes rages still, and I'm not sure we will ever get to the right answer to these questions.

As the author is the narrator of this book, and is the one constant throughout its many threads, I wanted to like her but I'm still left with an uneasy feeling about her role in the telling of this story. She makes acknowledgements and thanks to the many members of the Lacks family and was instrumental in founding the Henrietta Lacks Foundation but I'm uneasy that the book was dedicated to her own family and that neither of the Lacks heroines were included in the list.
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