Saturday, February 19, 2011

Immortal Life

I'm not a cell biologist, so I haven't ever done cell work. But among cell biologists, who hasn't used a HeLa strain at some point? From what I know about it, I would imagine that it's one of the first things that cell biology students are given to play around with. And even if you don't do cell biology, if you do any molecular biology, you certainly read about it - examples in text books, papers on experiments done with it, etc. I'd heard about HeLa my entire schooling and never once thought about what it meant or where the name came from - why should I care, either? It's not like the names of individual Drosophila lines are particularly illuminating. Most of them name the physical place the flies were originally collected from wild populations, or in the case of some others in our lab, they're just numbers.

I got a Kindle for Christmas this year and I absolutely love it, which is a whole other post; but anyway, one of the books I recently read was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. For the first time, I learned where most cell lines get their names. For the first time, I learned in a manner that felt nearly first-hand, more about the things that were done to people in the name of science, as short as fifty years ago. I'd heard about the Tuskeegee experiments, just about every scientist has, even if they aren't in the medical field, but reading such a direct and painful description of the way things were . . . it's hard. Did you have to read Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle' when you were in high school? I did, and it really upset me. I used my normal trick of reminding myself that it was a work of fiction, and besides, this was a compilation of every single bad thing that could happen to an immigrant family all happening to these characters. It only made it partially better, because I knew those things really did happen.

But reading this book, you can't tell yourself that it's okay because it didn't happen. It's like reading the Jungle but knowing that these people were real, that they worked and suffered and were lied to and then died. I don't want to give away the particulars of the book, because it's a really, really good read, and anyone who is interested in science or medical ethics should read it for themselves. But if you are like me, then be prepared for the horrible realizations that come with it.

That's just the way things were done. Maybe I could have been one of those privileged doing my work without regards to people or their rights, if I had been born sixty years ago. Maybe I wouldn't have seen how awful it was at the time either, even though my mind rebels at that idea. How many things do we allow because 'that's just the way it is'? Are there things we do today that will be considered atrocities in fifty years? I can think of a few things about society as a whole, but of course I would like to think there is nothing I, personally, do that falls under that. Wouldn't everyone?

Also, it reminds me of why cancer is so very creepy to me. Not just because it's deadly, and we still have inadequate treatment options even today - no, cancer frightens me because of what it represents. Cancer is a part of you that has declared mutiny. A part of you that refuses to cooperate, that seeks an independent existence from the organism it should be a part of. Of course, I'm anthropomorphizing, and doing it to a clump of cells, for added ridiculousness. It's much more like the concept of an industrial robot on an assembly line losing some of its built-in regulations and doing its particular job as much as it possible can, without regards to where it fits in the total assembly line of building a product, like spot welding 37 hood ornaments on to one car's hood, instead of the normal one-per-car it should be producing.

But changing the analogy doesn't frighten me any less. And knowing that I'm not one of those people now, that we don't do that to people any longer in the name of research, doesn't take away my shame that I still get to benefit from the results of such research.

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