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Doody's Review ServiceReviewer: Sally Smith-Hughes, PhD (University of California Berkeley, The Bancroft Library)
Description: This book relates the history of interferon in drug therapy for certain types of cancer and infections from its discovery in 1957 to the present. The editor, a virologist, tells the story from the standpoint of a central figure in interferon research and as head of a Finnish laboratory which for decades was the major supplier of interferon for research and clinical applications.
Purpose: The editor's purpose is to describe "my own life with interferon" which he hopes will provide the nonscientist with a view of science as practiced in the laboratory, in the clinic, and through international collaboration. This is indeed a worthy goal as science at the end of the 20th century permeates virtually every aspect of life yet remains largely foreign to most lay people.
Audience: The book is aimed at the reader interested in science, but not necessarily with a science background.
Features: The history the editor sets out to tell is potentially fascinating for two reasons. First, interferon at the time of its discovery and again in the late 1970s was hailed as a potential miracle drug. The 40 years in which it has been the subject of basic and clinical research have been laced with controversy, competition, colorful personalities, and periodic media attention. Second, the editor is a Finnish virologist who, except for a few years abroad, has based his entire career in Finland at the government-supported State Serum Institute in Helsinki. He provides a rare portrait of a scientist at work in a nonacademic institution distanced from the traditional centers of science who nonetheless manages full engagement in the international scene. The book is enhanced by photographs, presumably from the editor's personal collection. It suffers from the lack of an index and bibliography. A chronology of key events in the history of interferon would have been a useful addition.
Assessment: Despite the editor's interjection of anecdotes and personal sketches, the story is flat and his account of the science, although accessible to the nonscientist, will most likely fail to engage the reader. The problem may rest partly in the fact that although he wrote the book in English, a friend rewrote it to improve the English. The editor also fails to follow through on the political and ethical issues linked with the history of interferon. For example, most readers would like to know Cantrell's full and honest reaction to the media hype, contention, and potential gold mine surrounding the introduction of recombinant DNA technology and the race in the late 1970s among newly formed biotechnology companies to clone genes for interferon. One suspects that the editor, who supplied the interferon producing cell lines for the new research, must have watched with mixed emotions as his research system was displaced by the newer technology.