Friday, December 20, 2013

Hope, where there was none

Sometimes I ask myself why I read so much non–fiction.  How much am I really learning?  I'd certainly learn a lot more if I took notes, but I'm too lazy for that.  Instead, I try to write reviews so I can remember some of what I read.  Maybe the real reason is that I actually find histories to be interesting and – dare I say it – entertaining?  But sometimes I come across a book that challenges even that idea.  Was it interesting?  Yes.  Was it entertaining?  Hmm, yeah, I guess so.  Did I learn anything?  Umm (scratching my head)...

Medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies used to focus on diseases where lots of people were affected. It's expensive to bring a new drug to market and not only did they want to recoup the costs and make a profit, but also help as many people as possible. So, those afflicted with an uncommon disease like Chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, were out of luck. And unfortunately, a CML diagnosis usually meant a person only had 4 to 6 years to live – at most. There were treatments, but the side-effects were often debilitating and dangerous, and they only extended life by a few months. But a tiny discovery in 1959 set in motion events that would change all that when a scientist named David Hungerford noticed a piece of missing DNA in those with the disease, a mutation that became known as the Philadelphia Chromosome.  Other discoveries followed – lots of them – sometimes marginally related and other times seemingly unrelated.  In the end, it all culminated with Dr. Brian Drucker putting the pieces together and determinedly pushing for the development of a drug and clinical trials.  The result was Gleevec, and not only were lives saved but laws were changed to encourage pharmaceutical companies to pursue treatments that don't just help those with widespread maladies, but those with rare diseases, too.

I'll be honest: I've struggled with how to write a review for The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Mutant Gene and the Quest to Cure Cancer at the Genetic Level by Jessica Wapner (which I received from Amazon Vine) for nseveral months now.  I wasn't exactly pleased with my written review on Amazon, but I try to make my blog posts better than that.  On the one hand, it's one of the "good news" stories about curing a form of cancer, and was very interesting.  On the other hand, it's clearly not going to appeal to everyone and was often hard to understand.  The first 100 pages is rather technical, with discussions about how the genetic mutation happens and the seemingly disparate individual scientific contributions that were so essential.  A lot of people, events, findings, and discoveries are detailed and given due credit.  I tried to understand and follow the science behind it all – and there are some color diagrams that help to explain the genetics – but much of it went over my head.  After the technical stuff, however, the book becomes a fascinating story of Dr. Drucker's fight against the bureaucracy of a large profit-making drug company and getting Gleevec developed and tested.

It's not as readable as the development of insulin or as dramatic as the eradication of smallpox, but it was still a very inspiring story and a good book.  I just wish I'd understood more of it better.

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