by Robert Lopresti
This is not going to be as cohesive as (I hope) most of my pieces here
are, because I have three vaguely related things I want to talk
about. And they have only a slight connection to crime or
mystery. The fact that I'm fighting a cold doesn't help.
So if you prefer to skip this and go check your email you won't hurt my feelings. If you're still with me, here goes.
A relative recently told us she had her genome
tested and invited us to do the same. This feat, which would have
been the wildest science fiction a few decades ago, now costs about a
hundred bucks and takes a couple of weeks. You spit in a test
tube, and wait to get an email. Not exactly Doctor Who, is it?
And the results, I have to say, are pretty cool. My
background, as far as I know, is one-half Italian, three-eighth
English, and one-eighth Irish. The computers spotted 10% Italian,
3% British/Irish, 2% French/German, and the rest is mostly vaguely
European. There is a tantalizing 0.2% Sub-Saharan African, which I
assume comes from my Italian ancestors. (To paraphrase Pete
Seeger, where do you think those Roman emperors got their curly
hair?) Oh, and I am 2.8% Neanderthal.
But more interesting, the same service tells you if you have inherited health
risks that are greater or lower than average. And that is why the
Food and Drug Administration just sent them an order to cease their
business. Because, says the FDA, they were giving out medical advice, which is
illegal. I look forward to seeing how it turns out in court, but
I will say this: I have a higher-than-average level of one chemical
and my doctor has been trying for years to figure out why. The
computer gurus (knowing nothing about my medical test results) were
able to tell me that that higher level runs in my genome.
If you want to know more about the controversy, read this and this.
Now, on to the second topic. I am reading a fascinating and
infuriating non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot entitled THE IMMORTAL
LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS. Ms. Lacks suffered from bad luck nine
ways from Sunday. She was an African-American woman born in poverty in the
rural south in the early-twentieth century. (I am not saying it is bad
luck to be born African-American. But there have been better times and places for
it.) She died of cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31.
But before she died scientists took samples of her tumor, possibly with
her permission (the phrase "informed consent" hadn't even entered the
medical vocabulary by that point). Scientists had been trying for
years to grow cells in test tubes, but the cells always died after a
few generations. Not so the HeLa cells (named for their original
source). They were "immortal," and could be cultured, multiplied, sent through the mail, experimented on, etc.
And so cells that began in this poor, hard-luck woman, were used to develop
polio vaccines, were sent into space, and became essential parts of thousands of
other studies. (The name of that genome company I was talking about is
23andme, which refers to the 23 chromosomes in the human genome. Guess
whose cells were used in figuring out that number?) Ms. Lacks' cells were so potent that years later many other
colonies of cells that were growing around the world were discovered to
be contaminated with HeLa cells - even though none had been used in
that laboratory. They could sneak in on a dirty test tube, or a
The book, which I highly recommend, also discusses the baffled horror
of Ms. Lacks' family as they discovered, decades after the fact, what
had been done to parts of her body without their knowledge or permission. The
conflict between the scientists and the family takes on the
inevitability of Greek tragedy: there was simply no common ground for
communication. You find yourself expecting the next unintentional
outrage. When it becomes necessary to explain the concept of "genetic
markers" to Ms. Lacks's widower, a man with four years of schooling, of course
the scientists had it done over the phone by a researcher with a thick
Chinese accent and imperfect English. How could it have been
Reasonable people can disagree about whether persons whose cells are
used in research deserve any control or compensation. (There are more than 17,000 patents based on HeLa cells.) But it boggles
the mind that some scientists in the early fifties thought it acceptable to secretly inject HeLa cells (highly active cancer cells,
remember) into surgery patients just to see what would happen. This
went on until some physicians refused to participate, pointing out that
eight doctors were hanged at Nuremberg for that sort of research.
And on that cheerful note, let's move on to my third topic. I just
finished reading NECESSARY
LIES, the most recent novel by my sister,
Diane Chamberlain. You can certainly accuse me of nepotism for bringing
it up here, but I think you will see the connection. Diane's excellent
book is fiction, of course, but it is firmly rooted in the Eugenics
Sterilization Program, under which North Carolina sterilized 7,000
people between 1929 and 1975. They focused on "mentally defective"
epilectics, and people on welfare. Most states with such programs gave
them up after World War II (the shadow of Nuremberg, again), but the Tarheel State
actually boosted theirs.
Diane's novel is set in 1960 when a brand-new social worker (after
three whole days of training!) is given the job of preparing the
sterilization request for a pregnant fifteen-year-old. The idea is
that the girl will wake up after giving birth with an "appendectomy
scar" and never be told she has been sterilized.
The book is not a mystery. It is not a melodrama either: there are no cackling villains. Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing (just like the scientists who used the HeLa cells). And Diane is careful to include one woman who is thrilled to get the operation, since birth control was not easily available.
There are crimes and
punishments in the book, but whether the crimes are what gets punished
is open to interpretation.
Well, I'm going back to my sickbed. I hope I gave you a few things to think about, anyway.