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The Beautiful Cure

The Beautiful Cure: The Revolution in Immunology and What It Means for Your Health

Daniel M. Davis
University of Chicago Press
272 pp.
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In The Beautiful Cure, immunologist Daniel Davis endeavors to tell the story of human immunology in eight chapters, spanning foundational concepts, pivotal discoveries by brilliant scientists and their collaborators, the personal drama that has accompanied Nobel prizes and other recognition awarded in this highly competitive field, and anecdotes about how individual choices can affect one’s immune function and overall health.

Most readers will be familiar with the notion that stress increases vulnerability to illness. You may have noticed the way that pesky virus going around the office seems to skip over your meditation-practicing, well-rested co-worker, or perhaps you have experienced the reactivation of latent herpes virus (developed a cold sore) during demanding periods of your own life. In chapter 5, Davis skillfully tethers this phenomenon to the primary underlying factor: cortisol, a hormone that controls expression of >20% of human genes. Here, he describes how overproduction of cortisol during periods of stress effectively dampens innate immune responses, increasing the likelihood that exposure will result in infection rather than containment.

Cortisol is revisited in the subsequent chapter, which delves into Earth’s cycles and circadian rhythms. Davis notes that in a healthy person, cortisol fluctuates predictably throughout the day and that, as a result, the performance of some drugs varies substantially depending on when they are administered. This phenomenon can be exploited for increased vaccine response. Davis estimates, for example, that “giving the [flu] vaccine in the morning would be able to protect over half of elderly people.” One wonders then why drugs, by and large, are not prescribed for dosing at specific times of day, despite the fact that “fifty-six of the top hundred bestselling drugs in the USA… target the product of genes that change their activity with the time of day.”

In his attempt to tell a complete story, Davis makes a heroic effort to include all major discoveries and credit all the giants upon whose shoulders the research community stands. In addition to the impact of stress and timing on immune function, he highlights major immune cells and mediators (such as dendritic cells and cytokines), delves into regulatory T cells and the hygiene hypothesis, and squeezes in a quick aside about the microbiome. However, given the complex, overlapping, and time-shifting nature of these discoveries (the first several pages of chapter 1 bounce the reader from 2008 to 1970 to 1721 to 1926), the narrative is often challenging to follow.

It is also unclear who Davis is writing for. Although he includes simplified descriptions of basic immunology concepts, seemingly to make the material accessible to a lay reader, he also describes complex scenarios without including any sketches or figures, from which such a reader would benefit greatly.

Overall, the book is of greatest value for biological scientists, for whom the relatively brief overview reveals intriguing connections in immunology’s history, helps tie together stove-piped areas of inquiry, and offers fresh perspective on future research strategies.

About the author

The reviewer is at Strategic Analysis, Arlington, VA 22203, USA.