Medicine for today and tomorrow
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2001 European Molecular Biology Organization EMBO reports vol. 2 | no. 10 | 2001 881
Medicine for todayand tomorrow
Exploring the Biomedical RevolutionEdited by Maya PinesThe Howard Hughes Medical Institute,Johns Hopkins University Press,Baltimore, MD442 pages, US$ 19.95ISBN 080 186 3988
Any scientific institution must publish itsannual, biannual, decennial or whatevercommemoration report. In most cases, theresult is neither very appealing nor read-able, but this is of no great importancesince the readership is mostly limited tocontributors and would-be contributors.Exploring the Biomedical Revolution,edited and principally written by MayaPines, is on a different level. Though thisbook is meant to be a glimpse into theworld of the Howard Hughes Medical
Institute, its ambition and scope is muchbroader. In fact, no matter what kind of ascientist you are, or even if you are just aninterested layman, I suggest you have thisbook on your bedside table and read afew pages every day before sleeping. It ispleasant reading, beautifully illustratedand provides excellent cultural materialwhich no one should ignore.
Explaining science to the wider publicis a difficult task, but one which theHoward Hughes Medical Institute hasembraced for more than a decade. Theresult has been a number of publicationsdealing with fundamental questions ofbiology and medicine. These were sosuccessful that over one million copieswere distributed and special editionswere prepared for high schools all overthe world. Exploring the BiomedicalRevolution builds and expands on thissuccess. It addresses major aspects ofmodern medical research such as basicgenetics (Blazing A Genetic Trail), devel-opmental biology (From Egg to Adult), thebrain and perception, public health andmicrobiology (The Race against LethalMicrobes) and structural biology (FindingCritical Shapes). These diverse topics areneatly pasted together with additionalchapters ably written to provide contin-uity to the parts and a unity to the whole.
The book combines two apparentlyopposing approaches. On the one hand, itaims to convey dry, hard scientific facts,as in standard scientific articles; on theother, it tries to bring them to life by thetraditional recipe of popular journalism,namely by focusing on the people who
make it happen. Whether the result is asuccess is a matter of taste, but no onewould deny that the book is a mine ofinformation and the illustrations are superb.
With all due credit to the effort repre-sented by Exploring the Biomedical Revo-lution, I was left with an uncomfortablefeeling. The book wants us to believe inthe biomedical revolution unreservedly.Truly we all agree that a molecular andcell biology revolution is taking placebefore our very eyes, but the biomedicalrevolution is still to come. Nowadayspeople are much more skeptical of theperceived miracles of modern medicine.They ask: why is Aids still spreading? Whydo I get flu every winter? Why are weunable to cure genetic diseases? They ask:what shall we do with breast cancer diag-nostics when no cure is available and if,one day, the biomedical revolutionsucceeds in eradicating illness and death,what are we going to do with such animpossible situation?
The public at large to whom the book isaddressed is certainly confident that thebiomedical revolution is a powerful toolfor shaping the future of mankind. Mostpeople are, however, not so sure abouthow this tool should and will be used.Some broader chapters on the relationshipbetween the biomedical sciences and poli-tics, on bioethics and on human valueswould therefore have been a valuable andcomplementary addition to the book.
The author is at the University of Lausanne inSwitzerland.