FROM ZERO TO HERO: the immortal life of an (un)known woman

TITLE: The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

AUTHOR: Rebecca Skloot

AVAILABLE: English and Italian

How much time did you spent on  biology school book studying the brick of life, the cell? How many times have you heard carelessly  about new discoveries of biology thanks to some immortal cellular lines? How many times have you asked yourself about who donate their cells for the science? If your answers are a lot, sometimes and never, please continue reading this review and then run to the library or a bookshop.

USA,1958: a black woman, Henrietta Lacks, dies because of a uterin cervix cancer. She wasn’t the first and won’t be the last woman who will face to this type of ordeal. During one of her last medical examination, doctors collected a sample of tumoral cells for some laboratory tests. At that time there weren’t any strict laws about the collection of biological samples for medicine, least of all if your skin had got  a great concentration of melanine .Henrietta Lacks and her husband

While Henrietta’s family was celebrating the funeral, in the laboratory there was a sort of rebirth of science and biology. In fact, the tumoral cells of Henrietta had got something special, and they were very different from thousands of other cells already tested: they were immortal. These strange cells live and increase without any problem. The research breathes again thanks to HeLa.

On one hand biomedical discoveries has changed the history of medicine, obtaining prizes and success, but on the other hand the life of Henrietta’s heirs was harsh to make ends meet. Moreover they were at total darkness about the amazing cells of  their relative. The unawareness was one of the problems which  Rebecca Skloot, a scientific journalist, had to deal with. The hunt, for this book, took ten years. She chased Henrietta through the story of her family, official archives and direct evidences.

Skloot writes a complex book (it’s an essay, an article, a novel) with openness and expertise. Although some parts are a bit arduous, it’s a good reading for non experts people. Don’t be scared for the more four hundreds pages because you will be captured in them.

Finally, did Rebecca Skloot find Henrietta Lacks? Enjoy the adventure!


OLD BUT GOLD – The extraordinary story of a poisonous plant used to treat a baffling disease

TITLE: “L’erba della regina” (The Queen’s Grass) AUTHOR: Paolo Mazzarello EDITOR: Bollati Boringheri AVAILABLE: Italian only Once upon a time there was a disease, a medicine man, a plant and a Queen. It’s not the beginning of a fairy tale, but by some strange coincidences it could be. At the end of the first World War, spanish flu was devastating Europe. But there was another strange disease which was spreading silently trough the villages: Encephalitis Lethargica. The symptoms are nowadays considered a medical contradiction, but in that days they were only a mass of clinical signs. The list consisted of: high fever, slow movements, no facial expression, muscolar pains, tremors, abnormal eye movements, behavioural changes. The main characteristic of the disease is a profound  coma-like sleep. The doctor didn’t know how to face the disease. Without a treatment, the neurological and psychiatric departments were rapidly filled. In this period in Bulgaria a medicine man, Ivan Raev, treated succesfully a woman affected by Encephalitis Lethargica with a dangerous plant: Deadly Night-Shade. Without a medical degree, Raev used the only two tools in his hands: observation and his exstensive knowledge of curative plants. The news of woman was heard on the grapevine by an influent personality: Helen Queen of Italy, Victor Emmanuel’s wife. A woman, born in Montenegro, a small state on the other side of Adriatic Sea, passionate about medicine, was the trigger for a new way to approch the patients: she opened many structure where treatment was combined with physiotherapy, psychotherapy and other amenities. For this modern approach, whole of Europe looked the Italian model. Maybe the past has still something to teach us. When you read the book it’s clear that the author loves each word written. In fact he is a doctor and a college professor of Medical history. He travelled to Bulgaria in order to reconstruct the events of that period. In my opinion “The Queen’s Grass” is well worth reading. Unfortunately it has not been traslated into other languages. Nevertheless, firstly I enjoyed the style: simple and well-finished. It’s friendly also to “non- medical-readers”. Secondly, I appreciated the bibliography. It’s useful for a reader interested in the topic and it’s  an indication of scientific accuracy. Nowadays we can breath a sigh of relief because the disease has disappeard. But we can’t exclude it could return disguised in another form. However, I’m sure that if there was a similar dreadful situation, there would be also new types of powerful drugs, well-prepared doctors and passionate women.the queen's grass