Sunday, September 30, 2012

..of Cells, Biology and Cloning. Or Not.

Name - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author - Rebecca Skloot
Publisher - Pan Macmillian
Price - 325 INR
Pages - 377

If you think, biology is "not your type", this one is a must read!

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is the story of a woman who revamped the course of medical history. Except that she didn't know it. Neither did her family or children or husband or friends. 

Medical science progressed, and companies continued to make millions off Henrietta's cells, while her family continued to struggle in abject poverty, little education, occasional crime and a lot of injustice. 

The epic "hands-on-her-hips"
file photo of Henrietta Lacks 
Henrietta was a 31 year old, poor African-American tobacco farmer - native of South Virginia, mother of five, caregiver of many more - when she she died, quite suddenly, of cervical cancer, just eight months after her first hospital visit. This was waaayyy back, in 1951.
She was treated at the John Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, and waaay back then, treatment (both medical and otherwise) for the 'colored' wasn't exactly in black and white. 
The doctors did some. And then they didn't do some. As a part of what they did do, a small coin-sized sample of her tissue (cancerous and normal) was taken to the lab for culturing. 

Crazy balls!
Cancerous cells, put simply, grow like 'crazy balls' (remember those?) pounce. On and On and On. Just as the balls don't lose momentum for a long, long, time, cancerous cells never grow old. So they continue to divide like crazy throughout their extended youth! And this of course messes with our system and causes waay too many aberrant cells in our body (cancer).

Picture this: An India-Pakistan final cricket match, and a nail-biting close. We need five runs off the last ball of the last over when Sachin T smashes living daylights of the shot! Woohoo, and we clinch the title!
Those were somewhat the feelings of George Gey - the researcher in whose lab Henrietta's cells were first grown. Scientists all over the world had been trying to grow human cells in the laboratory since long and Henrietta's cells were nothing short of miracle. They clinched a win for his lab, his love for science, and an never-to-be-forgotten landmark in the history of medical science.

Slowly after that, Henrietta Lacks (HeLa) cells became the standard in medical practice. They were used for everything from drug-testing to cell-cloning, from vacuum subjection (they were sent up in space!) to radiation treatment. They have been reproduced, reused, standardized, treated, tested, twisted, tackled, even tampered with.. in every imaginable and unimaginable way. In fact, it is estimated that there is no person on earth who has not benefited either directly or indirectly from her cells.. Talk about impact.

Ironically though, it was her own family which was left, ortracized and oblivious, to all of these developments for over 20 years. 

Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's youngest daughter,
was just six, when
she lost her mother to cervical cancer
In Henrietta's youngest daughter, Deborah Lacks words: "If our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can't afford to see no doctors?"
I don't think anyone - from the doctors at John Hopkins to the writer of this book had an answer.

And so, this is a harrowing tale of racism and injustice, science and progress, the world and its ways, scientific discovery and emotional depth, biology and ethics, and yes, the crazy cells that changed our world for good.

The writer's decade long research, with writers, scientists, her family, friends, neighbors, and lawyers deserves all the praise that it can possibly get. Rebecca Skloot managed to weave entire scenes, sequences and series from Henrietta's life - she helped us re-live her joys, weep quietly in her travails, pray silently for soul and most importantly, know the person behind the marvel called HeLa.

Deborah Lacks, and her brother Zakariyya, as they saw their mother's cells under a microscope
for the first time. She pressed a cold vial of the cells to her lips and whispered "You're famous [mother]. Just that nobody knows it."
PS. I am totally in awe of the writer, her writing style and her persistence to bring alive this story to every reader! Science Journalism is so totally awesome. Here is the link to a small interview that she gave shortly after the release of her book.. :) 

Happy Reading - also, if anyone is in Delhi/Gurgaon/Chandigarh and would like to read this book, I will be happy to pass on my copy.. Let me know! 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me!

Courtesy: Internet

If procrastination were a religion, I'd be God.

I've been wanting to write about my birthday (and lots of other stuff), for really long now (uh, my birthday was 2 months back!) and I am amazed at how I convince myself that that next weekend, will be the weekend (you know what I mean?).

Anyway, my birthday this time was really special - my sister joined B-school (Wohoo, the loser me has been trying for years now), my parents came over to Delhi, my sisters and I were together and I got to meet my cousins too..
And, I also went to Ummeed (an NGO under the Dil Se Campaign, that I work with on weekends.. Basically, we teach/mentor/ have fun/spend time/ organize moral-based games activities for the children there).

So, I was trying to hammer down a few concepts of Quadratic Equations (and remembering how my dad used to scream if I didn't understand or atleast try to understand the concept behind each maths problem-"If you don't know the basics,how will you move ahead!!").. I remember thinking exactly the same thing with this kid.. I looked at him with utter disgust, when he tried to learn a maths problem.. Uh, I thought, this silly kid is trying to learn maths, huh.. If you don't know the basics, how will you move ahead, tell me! And then I controlled my temper (in my mind) and started to re-explain. Uff, I thought, I don't like kids one bit.

Meanwhile, my two friends Harpreet & Deepkiran, were playing softball with children in the next room. They called me saying they'll need a little help. So, I gave this child  a few problems (by the way, this trick really works and I think all teachers use it - whenever you want to get rid of a child for some time, give him a set of maths problems that you know he'll struggle with. And tell him/her with authority.. If you cant solve these then we'll go back to the Chapter in Class II.. And quietly leave the kid to solve his own problems :P Now have your chai, coffee and come back when you wish. PS. Remember to act exasperated when you're back!)

Anyway, I went to the next room to see a bunch of around twenty kids, each with a card in hand!!
I don't know whose idea it was, but it a really really awesome!
I gave them sweets (which by the way, they brutally snatched and seized right out of my hands.. Two of them fought for a Ravalgon, like army men on the Kashmir border (except that we sorted this issue much faster).. It was striking to note that when the supply of toffees was lesser than the demand, they didn't show the slightest hint of the manners we've been trying to teach them for so long.. (Urgh, did I tell you I don't like kids one bit)

Anyway, it was a great great feeling to get those cards and they made my birthday special. Hmmm, maybe they're not so bad after all (yeah, the kids).

Happy Birthday to me.

Here are a few of the cards I got:

Amita Bidi, Ha!

           Isn't the cake absolutely delectable? Its fresh fruit mind you, this kid has good taste.

I like the hearts with hands and feet and wings. Its like, literally giving wings to your imagination.

This card came in a matching envelope with blue taped border. Talk about perfection! Except that I don't like it when they spell my name incorrectly (Urgh, these kids. "If you don't know the basics, how will you move ahead!")

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