Genes, Chance And Destiny

Lloyd Sederer in The Huffington Post:

SidAt 46, Siddhartha Mukherjee, is a man driven by questions, by puzzles in science and society. In 2011, his first book, a 600-page book on the history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, won a Pulitzer Prize, among other accolades. Time magazine lists the book among the one hundred most influential books written since 1923. His new and third book, The Gene, an Intimate History, published in 2016, sets out to tackle another crucial question that sits at the edge of science and society. This book is a finalist for the UK’s top award for nonfiction writing, the Baillie Gifford Prize, putting him in competition with a Nobel Laureate. More about both books below. As technologies accelerate, so does what we know about the human genome – the complete code of DNA in our cells and bodies that orchestrates our destiny. Mukherjee knows that the prospect of understanding aspects of our genetic code is no longer ‘if’ but when and how. As that happens, he asks us to wonder, as he does himself, what will we do with these new-found powers? What does the future hold for the human genome – now that we are learning to “read” and “write” our own codes of instruction? The easy answers are their application in preventing disabling and deadly genetic diseases and mitigating the progression of many illnesses, especially cancers. But science is agnostic, it does not set social or moral boundaries. Mukherjee comments that we are creating questions for our children as we master the capacity to not only decode but also to recode the genetic building blocks of our lives. We may be cutting, splicing, and inserting different genetic sequences that make us, and our progeny, truly different, where the consequences are deeply uncertain as to whether good or bad ― or both ― will result.

I met with him at his lab and office at Columbia’s Irving Cancer Center, in Washington Heights in Northern Manhattan, on a bright September morning that itself radiated hope. He was quick to let me know that he is a cell biologist, that his work and his insistent queries, scientific and societal, are meant to answer “how and why do cells go wrong {that is, mutate and become cancer}…and conversely how do they not go wrong?”, and all the variation that exists in between. Dr. Mukherjee spends a half a day each week seeing patients in a Columbia oncology clinic. That is time where he confronts the human faces and anxieties that patients and their families endure when nature goes awry and cancer takes its toll. He also has a lab that studies stem cells, the originating, undifferentiated cells that become every other type of cell in our body, from blood and bone marrow cells (his focus), to our heart, neurons and nerves, skin, nose and toes, to name a few. Stem cells undergo radical transformations and may supply clues to understanding cellular aberration and reveal how disorders can be prevented or treated. He is a husband who spoke proudly of his wife’s accomplished artistry and a dad who wonders about the future and fate of his two daughters.

More here.