By Nitya Chakraborty
Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee has done it again. His third book’ The Song of the Cell’ published this year has once again mesmerized the doctors, scientists and the common readers much more than the impact he had with his first two books ‘The Emperors of all Maladies’ and ‘The Gene’. Mukherjee has come out in this trilogy once more as a great story teller who can combine the history of the medical investigations with personal anecdotes and thereby imparting a bigger dimension to his exploration of the root causes of the diseases. The New Yorker has rightly said in its review that ‘it is hard to think of many authors who have rendered any areas of modern science and technology with such intelligence, accessibility and compassion’.
The 474-page book contains six parts narrating the extraordinary story of the research and investigations going into the discovery of the human cell and how in the last five hundred years, the doctors and the scientists have been able to understand the ecosystem of cell which is at the root of all diseases affecting hearts, bloods, brains. Mukherjee elaborates the long journey taken by the scientists in discovering the new frontiers of knowledge in the present century to formulate new treatments for the body as a whole as also creating new humans.
In the fourth part called ‘Knowledge’ the chapter on ‘Pandemic’ is most interesting. Mukherjee himself was fully involved as a doctor scientist in his investigations on how to combat the covid 19 virus. in his Columbia University laboratory in New York. In an illuminating appraisal of two years of his fight against the SARS COV 2 infections, he writes ‘Pandemics teach us about epidemiology. But they also teach us about epistemology – how we know what we know. SARS COV 2 has forced us to point our most scientific flashlights on the immune system, resulting in arguably the most intense scrutiny that this community of cells, and the signals that move between them, has ever been subject to.’.
Mukherjee, then observes’ what we think and what we understand about SARS COV 2 is limited to what we know already about the immune system-the known knowns. We cannot know the unknown unknowns’. He says ‘ the story we have told ourselves about why SARS COV 2 is so devious at hijacking out immune system, is perhaps a totally incomplete story. Our understanding of the true complexities of the immune system, has been partially shoved back to black box’.
There is a story of success and triumphalism also in the fight against the covid virus. But Mukherjee points out that triumphalism fails in the face of more than six million deaths. The pandemic energized immunology but it also exposed gaping fissures in our understanding. It provided a necessary dose of humility. I cannot think of a scientific moment that has revealed such deep and fundamental shortcomings in our knowledge of the biology of a system that we had thought we knew. We have learned so much. We have so much left to learn’.
In a graphic account of the challenging days of battling the pandemic in his New York hospital in the early part of 2020 when the city was in siege by the covid virus and the people were dying in droves, Mukherjee writes ‘what preoccupied me was the collapse of infrastructure and of homeostasis that we had witnessed during the worst of the crisis in the United States, and then around the world’. The writer spent nearly a year thinking about bodies succumbing to illness, about a cellular system poised for battle against invaders. But as the spring of 2921 approached, the constant metaphor of the battles had become denervating. I wanted to think about normalcy and restoration. About cellular systems that form the infrastructure of human physiology. I was exhausted by my mulling about how the body recognizes things- viruses – that do not belong. I wanted to turn to citizenship, to belonging’.
This longing for the sense of belonging and the need for interconnection of the humans that drive Mukherjee in his relentless search for going into the root of cell biology.. As he sees ’knowledge that is just not names to build new humans out of cells, we need just not names but interconnection between names, not addresses but neighbourhoods, not identification cards but personalities, stories and histories that accompany them’.
Mukherjee has his unique approach of studying cellular biology taking into the wider world of culture and history, He writes ‘Cellular engineering has already allowed us to rebuild parts of humans with reengineered cells. As our understanding of this arena grows, new medical and ethical conundrums will arise, intensifying and challenging the basic definition of who we are and how much we wish to change ourselves”. Then he says “these tenets continue to animate, drive and even surprise is today. As doctors, we learn these principles. As patients we live them. As humans entering a new realm of medicine, we will have to learn how to embrace them, challenge them and incorporate them into our culture, societies and shelves”
With his extraordinary lucidity of language, Mukherjee encapsulates the journey of the scientists from the fifteenth century in discovering the new areas of cell biology. In the late1600, a distinguished English polymath, Robert Hooke and an eccentric Dutch cloth merchant Antonie Van Leeiwenhoek through their handmade microscopes introduced a radical concept that swept through biology and medicine, touching every aspect of the two sciences and altering both forever. Since then it has been an intensive battle for the last five hundred years for expanding the areas of research and investigations on cell biology.
Beginning with his first part on” Discovery” elaborating on the original cell, the visible cell, the universal cell and the pathogenic cell, Mukherjee explains – all cells come from cells and the first human cell gives rise to all human tissues. This means every cell in the body can be produced, in principle from an embryonic cell or stem cell. He explains the human body functions as a citizenship of cooperating cells. And the disintegration of this citizenship tips us from wellness to disease..And then the writer observes that the capacity to build new humans out of our cells lies very much within the reach of medicine today..
What is unique about Mukherjee’s style in explaining any complexities in the functioning of the cell, he brings some historical or literary parallel making it easier for the readers to stick on. He made use of this same method in his two earlier books ‘The Emperor of Maladies’ and ‘The Gene’ but in ‘The Song of the Cell’ this fusion has been a masterstroke. The readers are never allowed to lose their interest. Siddhartha is only 52 and he is now a celebrity in America in both medical and media circles. His admirers will be looking for many more such gems in the coming years. (IPA Service)