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Chris Melnick: Reads &Watches

Nov 1,2022

[Editor's note: Chris Melnick is the Executive Director of Share the Magic Book Program, which is a federally registered charity that distributes books, from books for babies to adults, fiction and non-fiction to underserved communities in Manitoba.  To date, Share the Magic has given away over 630,000 books at an estimated value of over $4.2 million. You can follow Share the Magic on Facebook by searching "Share the Magic Book Program"]


Who do you think you are?


        To begin this column I am encouraging everyone to get the flu shot, if you haven’t already gotten it.  I am going into week 3 of a bad flu, which began just a few days before the shot was available in Manitoba.  Believe me, you do not want to be dealing with this.  In short, I am sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.  The flu shot is free, available at a pharmacy near you and you can get the COVID Bivalent booster shot at the same time to boot!


        Who do you think you are?  A question many are asking these days due to the prevalence of companies such as 23andMe, who claim to be able to give you your DNA history via a simple spit sampling.  Beware of what you ask for as the answer may surprise you.  The Lost family:  How DNA testing is upending who we are by Libby Copeland, is full of the twists and turns that might occur once you send off your sample.  Such was the case with Libby who discovered, through the above testing method, that her thoroughly Irish father, turned out to be thoroughly Jewish (Eastern European Ashkenazi).  It was not for the reason I first thought of, which was his family protecting themselves through adopting a new identity once they came to North America.

        In this engrossing account of her journey to discover the answer, Copeland profiles several instances of people making discoveries of a similar nature. 

        I had my own personal experience right here in Winnipeg.  In the Christian world, these testing kits are a popular Christmas gift.  Such was the case of a woman I know who found out through a DNA test that she has Indigenous blood, going back at least one hundred years.  She was pleased with this discovery and told me that it made a lot of sense from what she already knew of her family history, with ancestors coming from Quebec several generations previous.

        The tests can be used for a number of reasons and different companies have specific focuses.  AncestryDNA focuses on genealogical materials, while 23andMe zeros in on health risks and traits.  DNA testing has also been helpful for adopted children, known as “seekers” to find their birth families and for parents to find the children they gave up for adoption.  This is also the case for those who were conceived via artificial insemination and of course, for the donors.  Copeland tells the story of one woman’s search for her male parent, only to discover some fifteen siblings, all from the same biological male.  Of course one cannot ensure that a happy ending will result from such contacts.

        DNA testing has, in more recent years been used for crime solving, some of which were extremely violent with convictions resulting from the use of DNA.  Such was the case with the notorious Golden State Killer, a former cop who turned into a violent criminal.  You can search for those grisly details yourself.

        One of the really interesting facts I learned is that a large number of test results have shown that most Europeans have about 6% Neanderthal genes.  By the way, it was the Neanderthals who gave us type 2 diabetes.

        The Church of the Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), also known as the Mormons have perhaps the world’s largest holding of genealogical records.  This is due to the Church’s belief that ancestors did not have the chance to become Mormons and so are often baptized to include them in the present day congregation.  This has led to some disturbing actions, which I will not go into here.          The Family History Library, located in Salt Lake City, Utah is best visited in person.  There are records from more than 120 countries, in more than 170 languages.  Staff develop areas of expertise, including one library researcher, who is an expert in old-world synagogue records.

        The Lost Family is all in all a well written, readable venture into the fascinating world of DNA testing, of which I knew nothing about.


        The Lost family:  How DNA testing is upending who we are is available at the Winnipeg Public Library in the following formats:



Book: 929.1072 COPELAND 2020


        In a somewhat DNA similar vein, I would recommend The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  Please note that the wording for much of this review is taken from sources such as the Winnipeg Public Library review and Wikipedia.  This is the incredible true story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer, (who) was buried in an unmarked grave sixty years ago. Yet her cells, taken without her knowledge, grown in culture and bought and sold by the billions, became one of the most important tools in medical research. Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey from the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East Baltimore today, where Henrietta's family struggles with her legacy.

        Henrietta’s cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line.  An immortalised cell line is a population of cells from a multicellular organism which would normally not proliferate indefinitely but, due to mutation, have evaded normal cellular senescence and instead can keep undergoing division. The cells can therefore be grown for prolonged periods in vitro. Immortal cell lines are a very important tool for research into the biochemistry and cell biology of multicellular organisms. Immortalised cell lines have also found uses in biotechnology.


        Lacks was the unwitting source of these cells from a tumor biopsied during treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., in 1951. These cells were then cultured by George Otto Gey, who created the cell line known as HeLa, which is still used for medical research. Gey, observed that these cells were unusual in that they reproduced at a very high rate and could be kept alive long enough to allow more in-depth examination. Until then, cells cultured for laboratory studies survived for only a few days at most, which was not long enough to perform a variety of different tests on the same sample. Lacks's cells were the first to be observed that could be divided multiple times without dying, which is why they became known as "immortal". After Lacks's death, Gey had Mary Kubicek, his lab assistant, take further HeLa samples while Henrietta's body was at the Johns Hopkins' autopsy facility. Gey was able to start a cell line from Lacks's sample by isolating one specific cell and repeatedly dividing it, meaning that the same cell could then be used for conducting many experiments. They became known as HeLa cells, because Gey's standard method for labeling samples was to use the first two letters of the patient's first and last names. The ability to rapidly reproduce HeLa cells in a laboratory setting has led to many important breakthroughs in biomedical research. For example, by 1954, Jonas Salk was using HeLa cells in his research to develop the polio vaccine. To test his new vaccine, the cells were mass-produced in the first-ever cell production factory. HeLa cells were in high demand and put into mass production. They were mailed to scientists around the globe for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits. HeLa cells were the first human cells successfully cloned, in 1955, and have since been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. There are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.  

        As was then the practice, no consent was required to culture the cells obtained from Lacks's treatment. Consistent with contemporary standards, neither she nor her family were compensated for their extraction or use.

        Even though some information about the origins of HeLa's immortalized cell lines was known to researchers after 1970, the Lacks family was not made aware of the line's existence until 1975. With knowledge of the cell line's genetic provenance becoming public, its use for medical research and for commercial purposes continued to raise concerns about privacy and patients' rights. In the early 1970s, a large portion of other cell cultures became contaminated by HeLa cells. As a result, members of Henrietta Lacks's family received solicitations for blood samples from researchers hoping to learn about the family's genetics in order to differentiate between HeLa cells and other cell lines.

        Alarmed and confused, several family members began questioning why they were receiving so many telephone calls requesting blood samples. In 1975, the family also learned through a chance dinner-party conversation that material originating in Henrietta Lacks was continuing to be used for medical research. The family had never discussed Henrietta's illness and death among themselves in the intervening years but with the increased curiosity about their mother and her genetics, they now began to ask questions. Since that time actions have been taken and continue to be taken by the Lacks family to clarify what rights they have in terms of both the use of cells and their ability to gain from the profits made by the use of Henrietta’s cells. 

        In March 2013, researchers published the DNA sequence of the genome of a strain of HeLa cells. The Lacks family discovered this when the author Rebecca Skloot informed them. There were objections from the Lacks family about the genetic information that was available for public access. Jeri Lacks Whye, a grandchild of Henrietta Lacks, said to The New York Times, "the biggest concern was privacy—what information was actually going to be out there about our grandmother, and what information they can obtain from her sequencing that will tell them about her children and grandchildren and going down the line." That same year another group working on a different HeLa cell line's genome under National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, submitted it for publication. In August 2013, an agreement was announced between the family and the NIH that gave the family some control over access to the cells' DNA sequence found in the two studies along with a promise of acknowledgement in scientific papers. In addition, two family members will join the six-member committee which will regulate access to the sequence data.

        In October 2021, Lacks' estate filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific for profiting from the HeLa cell line without Lacks' consent, asking for "the full amount of Thermo Fisher's net profits".   

        And on it goes.

        The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks is available at the Winnipeg Public Library in the following formats:

  • French – La vie immortelle d’ Henrietta Lacks – 616.0277092 LACKS 2011
  • Book – 616.027709 LACKS 2009
  • Large type – LT 616.027709 LACKS 2010
  • Book Club Kit – 616.027709 LACKS 2009 BOOK CLUB KIT
  • eAudiobook – digital format MP3, OVERDRIVE, LISTEN
  • eBook – digital format – HTML, ADOBE, EPUB
  • BLU-RAY FILM/TV IMMORTAL – video disc
  • Sound recording – CD 616.027709 LACKS


And now for this month’s Yiddish proverb


Dos leben iz di gresteh metsi’eh – men krigt es umzist


Life is the greatest bargain – you get it for nothing

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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