Foreword Reviews

Rediscovering the Immune System as an Integrated Organ

Clarion Rating: 4 out of 5

This is an invaluable resource for undergraduate and graduate students in search of a nonstandard immunology primer.

Peter Bretscher’s Rediscovering the Immune System as an Integrated Organ is a rigorous introduction to current immunological thought. Setting the field in historical context and discussing the current disconnect between knowledge at the cellular level versus the system level, the book well reflects the author’s half-century of research experience.

This is an exhaustive overview of the past and current study of immunology, beginning with the earliest knowledge of immunity from experiments on smallpox. Today immunology has five basic applications: autoimmunity, transplantation, infectious diseases, cancer, and allergies. Cambridge-educated Bretscher, whose 1970 Two-Signal Model of lymphocyte activation still garners admiration, moves forward from such prefatory material to argue that the current immunological focus being on the molecular level draws attention away from immunity as a system-level concern.

The book is structured like a scientific paper, with headings and subheadings, an extensive reference list, and so on. Vocabulary terms are given in bold italics and defined in context on first use, and each chapter ends with a helpful synopsis. However, these summaries are almost as dense as the text itself, and the many acronyms are difficult to keep straight. Despite the pictorial figures (images of rabbits, syringes, etc.) and glossary, this is not a layman’s overview but a comprehensive guide for college-level study or above. The text includes language that a neophyte might find impenetrable: “We could detect substantial HEL-specific IL-2-, IFN-g- and IL -4-producing CD4 T cells in the spleen of BALB/c mice when we immunized with aggregated HEL given with a non-microbial adjuvant.”

Unlike a textbook, though, the book also contains welcome snippets of autobiography. For instance, it reveals that the author’s older brother worked with Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA. Bretscher gives appealing anecdotes about Saturday morning get-togethers at the Cambridge Laboratory of Molecular Biology, wildlife appreciation in Australia, and taking pottery lessons to decompress from stressful work.

Bretscher traces not just the evolution of immunological knowledge, but also the development of his own thinking. To that end, the book details the various models and experiments he designed. So, too, does it take issue with certain other scientists’ theories, stating disagreements bluntly yet politely, and then backing up these opinions with facts.

Near the end, the book lists some hypotheses that Bretscher still hopes to explore, though it reveals that he is hampered by lack of funding because he does not work within the accepted molecular framework. Even so, Bretscher never comes across as bitter; he ends the work on a philosophical note, balancing optimism with realism: “I believe in the big picture—believing in it is for me the means of being most significantly constructive.”

This will be an invaluable resource for undergraduate and graduate students in search of a nonstandard immunology primer. With research under way into vaccinations against AIDS, tuberculosis, and cancer, the field has a bright future.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The author of this book provided free copies of the book and paid a small fee to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. Foreword Reviews and Clarion Reviews make no guarantee that the author will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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