An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System
© 2019 Matt Ritchel
Back in January, long before the pandemic was on my mind (or anyone else’s outside of China), I watched a charming and educational series called Cells at Work!, an anime about the human body — and specifically, the immune system. My interest ignited, I looked for something that might shed more light on the impressive complexity of the immune system, and (mostly) found it in An Elegant Defense. Richtel’s work takes us through the history of how we came to understand the immune system, and what medical researcher’s struggles with modern foes like cancer and AIDS have taught us. Although the book is often too breezy and disjointed for me, its subject is of considerable interest, and I found it worth the while.
My earliest conception of the immune system was terribly exciting: in fourth grade, I learned that my body was host to a little army, that when invaded by germs or such, would take to the field and drive the enemy away. Exciting — but simplistic. In reality, Ritchel writes, the immune system is more of a bouncer at a very lively bar; it’s there to keep the peace, destroying troublemakers without disrupting the other guests. But there’s not just one bouncer, but several of them, and they can both collaborate or step on the other’s toes: our bodies have several “first lines of defense”, not one integrated hierarchy. But those bouncers can also act like warrior cops, causing more trouble than they prevent — sometimes destroying the body in an effort to destroy their prey. To this end, there are natural safeguards, like specialist T-cells that regulate their brethren, or even self-destruct switches that particularly pervasive diseases like cancer can use to their own advantage. Ritchel guides us herky-jerky through the various players — T-cells, B-cells, dendrites, and a host of others that I remembered from Cells at Work! — while at the same time using medical research cases to show how our struggles to understand the immune system are offering us possible answers in the fight against cancer. One interesting case involves injecting T-cells with DNA from HIV — HIV’s anti-B cell weaponry — and then setting those T-cells loose on cancerous B-cells. It’s fascinating that we’ve come so far that we can manipulate the body this way, but I was also pleased to see that Ritchel includes information on how our immune systems are dependent on bacteria within us — bacteria that not only fight rival invaders for food and space, but trigger the formation of specialist cells in our bodies that can go to work rooting out malfactors. As much biology as I’ve read, learning that there are parts of our body that go unrealized unless they’re in communication with outside bacteria makes my mind boggle at how deeply interwoven the strands of life are.
This is a fascinating, deeply relevant book — but it has its irritants. The author likes to keep introducing new players and trains of thought, then jumping away to something else, then jumping back, and so on and so forth. It’s wearisome, especially when the jumps are always prefaced with trying-to-be-cool hooks like “And it all started with a werewolf.”* This becomes less of a problem 2/3rds into the book, because everything that can be introduced has been, and now it’s just a question of bringing all the threads together — using the medical cases of four people to sum up the past and future of immunology. While this title certainly isn’t in the competition for ‘best popular science ever’, those who want to learn more about the immune system will be largely well served by it.
[*] This is referring to lupus.
Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, Randolph Nesse
The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery, George Johnson
10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness, Alanna Collen
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, Ed Yong