In 2010, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies provided a stunning history of cancer and medical scientists’ ongoing research into ways to overcome it. In 2016, he delivered a similarly breathtaking treatment of genetic biology in The Gene. Now, in The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human, Mukherjee tells the compelling story of cell biology and the ways that cellular engineering can help us rethink what it means to be human.
Drawing on case studies, interviews, visits with patients, scientific papers and historical archives, Mukherjee tries to understand life in terms of its smallest unit: the cell. As he puts it, he’s listening to a cell’s “music” when he observes its anatomy and the way it interacts with surrounding cells. For example, the genes, proteins and pathways used by healthy cells are “appropriated” or “commandeered” by cancer cells. “Cancer, in short, is cell biology visualized in a pathological mirror,” Mukherjee writes.
Such knowledge allows medical researchers and doctors to imagine how cellular therapy could modify a patient’s cellular structure to treat their disease or medical disorder. In one case, a girl named Emily Whitehead, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, received CAR T-cell therapy: Her own T-cells were extracted, modified to target her disease and infused back into her body. Although there was an initial setback because of an infection, the cellular therapy succeeded. Mukherjee includes other stories like Whitehead’s, as well as those of heroes such as Rudolf Virchow, who discovered that “it isn’t sufficient to locate a disease in an organ; it’s necessary to understand which cells of the organ are responsible”; John Snow, the founder of germ theory; and Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who discovered insulin.
According to Mukherjee, the cell sings of a new human who is “rebuilt anew with modified cells [and] who looks and feels (mostly) like you and me.” Using cellular engineering, he writes, “we’ve altered these humans to alleviate suffering, using a science that had to be handcrafted and carved with unfathomable labor and love, and technologies so ingenious that they stretch credulity: such as fusing a cancer cell with an immune cell to produce an immortal cell to cure cancer.” Captivating and provocative, The Song of the Cell encourages us to rethink historical approaches to medical science and imagine how cellular biology can reshape medicine and public health.