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"Song of the Cell" | Reviewed by William Winkler

Wisconsin senator William Proxmire, the champion of Earth Day, was also known for his “Golden Fleece Awards,” citations of “wasteful” government grants for the study of seemingly irrelevant scientific subjects. While popular with the public and the press, the awards showed a lack of understanding of the concept of pure science, scientific inquiry with no apparent practical application.

In “The Song of the Cell” hematologist/oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee demonstrates the importance of this process of scientific thought. Starting with the earliest observations of 17th-century microscopists and progressing through the work of contemporary cellular biologists and biochemists, Mukherjee demonstrates how, piece by piece, observation and experimentation have built a matrix upon which new knowledge can be constructed.

Cells are the structural unit common to all plant and animal life. Most cells are specialized, performing a task for which they are uniquely qualified; heart muscle cells contract, nerve cells conduct chemical and electrical impulses. But every cell shares common structures with every other cell; a central repository of genetic material, a mechanism for generating energy, organelles that dispose of intracellular waste material, and a cell wall capable of selectively permitting access to and egress from the cell’s interior.

Mukherjee’s book does not confine itself to the history of cell science. The subtitle is “An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human.” A clinician as well as a researcher, the author includes case histories to illustrate how deepening understanding of the cell and its behavior can be used to save lives. The first such instance was the successful 2012 extraction and genetic modification of a 7-year-old girl’s immune cells to treat her previously intractable leukemia. These and other clinical reports bolster the author’s contention that all disease is ultimately disease of cells, and in the future much medical treatment will consist of manipulation and modification of cells, their structure and their genes.

Mukherjee is aware of the potential ethical issues raised by such a treatment approach, and he deals with them in the book’s final chapters.

“The Song of the Cell” is a work that could have become a challenging book about a difficult subject. The author’s skillful use of language to inform the lay reader on highly technical concepts creates a readable piece of literature. Cellular medicine is becoming an important method of therapy, and an understanding of its potentials and pitfalls will help patients make better informed decisions about their care. This book adds to that understanding.

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