Mukherjee, who will be visiting the Coolidge Corner Theater on Tuesday to talk about his latest work, sat down with the Globe to talk about the burgeoning field of cell therapy, the intricacies of science communication and the ethics of genetic engineering.
Q What inspired you to write “Song of the Cell”? What fascinates you about cells?
A I am a cell biologist in my laboratory life. I study cancer cells, their physiology and function. But I thought that over the past quarter century or so there has been so much focus on genes and genetics that we have been blinded by the idea that genes are important in maintaining the information for an organism, but it’s the cell that really does that is the entity through which this information is updated. And we’re moving into a century where we’re learning to manipulate cells, we’re learning how to transplant cells back into the body, and it’s giving us a new level of control in medicine that we didn’t have before.
To really understand where medicine is going, we have to go back and understand what a cell is, what a cell does, what cells do, what systems the cells control, and how those systems interact. So there was a personal reason and a much broader historical reason that this is one of the most exciting times for medicine as cell therapies are emerging as an important way to think about medical therapies.
Q As a medical professional and scientist, why do you take the time to write about science for the general public?
A It is very important to communicate basic knowledge to the general public. I think it’s important to communicate what scientists do, how we do it, why we do it. We live in a time when there is so much information and misinformation out there and it is important that medicine as a discipline is transparent to the public. But that’s the more general reason.
The narrower reason is that I write to think. When I write a book on cell biology, I think about my landscape of what I’m studying, and it’s only when I write it all down that I begin to understand where my work or our work in medicine fits into that big landscape. And then I can go back and evaluate that landscape again. And when patients ask me: “Where does the medicine go?” or when patients ask the question: “Where is my medicine? I can talk about this bow.
Q Anytime you talk about gene editing and cell engineering, there are people who raise ethical concerns. I am curious as a scientist and also as a human being, how much do you think is too much? Where do you draw that line?
A Both The Gene and this book talk at length about how these kinds of concerns really push the frontiers of knowledge, so I talked about how we really need to think through what the frontiers are of what can and cannot be manipulated be. The interesting thing about cell therapy is that cells seem to be being manipulated right now to alleviate disease.
On the other hand, I have also chronicled the efforts of what I consider to be renegade scientists like He Jiankui, who, without informed consent or without telling very many people, decided to edit a gene in human embryos and caused a sensation in the biomedical world . So I think there’s a reason to differentiate between cell therapies that try to alleviate disease and cell and gene therapies that are done just for the sake of doing it, or possibly for the sake of enhancing function, without proper consent. And I think it’s especially true when we’re doing these gene therapies on human embryos. We as a society have to make a decision about whether or not we should cross this line, under what circumstances we should cross it, and whether one can find an international consensus, not only among scientists but also among ethicists and medical patients.
Q As I’m sure you know, your Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer turns 12 this year. How do you balance working on such long, well-researched books with the knowledge that information can become outdated very quickly because science is constantly changing and evolving?
A It’s always a challenge. We update the books as the science changes. For example, right now there is an article in Nature that talks about how COVID is changing the way a cell regulates genes. It’s a fascinating paper – I just read it before picking up the phone – and it’s a great example of how things we thought we knew about this virus turned out differently, and again it doesn’t only about genetics, but also about virology and cell biology. The Emperor will likely be updated next year, adding new chapters about what’s happened over the last 10-12 years, and it’s a constant challenge. Science does not stop, it keeps producing new knowledge, and often the new knowledge contradicts the old knowledge.
Science is an ever-evolving body of knowledge, often contradicting itself, but getting closer and closer to what I believe to be understanding and truth.
Q One last question I wanted to ask is, do you have any favorite places or memories in Boston from your time at Harvard Medical School?
A I come to Boston all the time, it’s one of my favorite cities. My favorite thing about Boston was what I call the Three Bridges Run. I used to live in Cambridge and there is a way to fit three bridges into your run, so you walk along the river over one bridge, pass the second bridge and turn onto the third bridge. And I remember that particular time when I went for a jog and it started snowing and everything became like this still chamber. And you could almost hear yourself thinking as you walked. And I love this reminder of my time in Boston.
Siddhartha Mukherjee will be in conversation with Gabrielle Emanuel on October 25 at 6 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theater (290 Harvard St., Brookline). brooklinebooksmith.com
The interview has been edited and shortened.