Here's a fascinating look at cutting-edge scientific research—the identification of cancer's origins—from a man who has been near its center for nearly three decades. Weinberg (Biomedical Research/MIT) has the advantage of having actually worked with or competed against many of the scientists who are the stars of his story. Beginning in the 1950s, the search for the causes of cancer began to focus on two areas: the body of evidence implicating various possible carcinogens (tobacco smoke, asbestos, etc.) and the equally strong evidence that many cancers could be caused by viruses. The discrepancy was not resolved until it became clear how certain normally harmless genes (known as oncogenes) can become active and send the cells of which they are a part into cancerous growth. Weinberg gives this discovery full attention, as he does the linked discovery of a tumor-suppressing gene that can be damaged by carcinogens. But his account is most notable for its memorable portraits of the scientists themselves, among them Ernst Wynder, who first established a link between smoking and lung cancer; Howard Temin and David Baltimore, who discovered the mechanism by which retroviruses reproduce; and the brilliant but erratic Sol Spiegelman, himself a cancer victim. Weinberg's knowledge of the key players is matched by his ability to tell their collective story, doing justice to the scientific facts and making their significance clear to the lay reader. He is also eloquent on the politics of science, where the competition for grants and for Nobels is cutthroat. Nor does he ignore the scandals and disasters: Premature announcements of shaky results, grudges nursed for years, careers ruined by botched experiments. As the result of this research, our understanding of cancer has dramatically increased, and new techniques for fighting it may be expected to follow. Scientific history at its most compelling—strongly recommended.
Read full book review >