Skip to main content

Viruses vs Superbugs – Thomas Häusler ****

If ever there was a book that wasn’t for the faint hearted, it’s this one. I don’t mean that it’s painful to read. Despite being a translation (I’ll come back to this), it’s fluent and easy to get through the words – it’s just the contents that are nerve wracking.
We’ve all heard the news stories about “superbugs” – bacteria like MRSA (originally short for methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, but now, in sinister fashion, the MR means multi-resistant) that stalk hospitals and elsewhere, killing patients and refusing to respond to antibiotics. The first part of Thomas Häusler’s book concentrates firmly on scaring us to death about just how unstoppable these simple, but deadly bacteria, always around ready to take on a suitable wound, are becoming. The trouble is that bacteria breed very quickly. That means it doesn’t take long for a variant to occur that happens to be able to resist an antibiotic, and once the mutation crops up, natural selection means it may well have a better chance of surviving. Especially if antibiotics are sprayed around heavy-handedly by doctors and the livestock industry as Häusler makes it very clear they have been.
Is all lost? Are we to return to the bad old days, pre-antibiotics, where deaths from these killer bacteria were rife? Luckily, before we all go away and end it all, we are offered an alternative. Bacteria have a natural enemy – specialist viruses that prey on bacteria called phages (great word – and it doesn’t do any harm that they under an electron microscope they bear a distinct visual resemblance to the lunar lander – very sci-fi). This proves to be one of those “told you so” things, where those who get all snotty about modern science can say “we knew better in the old days”. Phages were popular as a weapon against bacteria before antibiotics were introduced, particularly in Eastern Europe, and have continued to be used there but not elsewhere. Since the earlier part of the twentieth century, there has been a lot of doubt about the effectiveness of phages – not helped by a period when they were marketed like patent medicine. What Häusler does is to show how phages offer hope when combined with modern techniques, if the antibiotics give up.
Of course there is a long and chequered history of using natural predators to dispose of an unwanted infestation. Ladybirds (ladybugs) are popular environmentally friendly solutions to aphids, for instance. But the “chequered” part refers to the habit of many predators, when let loose, of doing unexpected damage. While phages are very targeted, so unlikely to stray, there is always the concern that something might go wrong – viruses can mutate too. Also enough isn’t known about phages. Some are effectively symbiotic, and instead of killing a bacterium, these “temperate phages” can turn a low risk infector into a killer. And then it’s not always easy to get the right phages to the right place to kill the bacteria as they’re relatively big compared with the chemical molecules of a drug, and the body has a tendency to break them down. That makes it a more balanced, more interesting story than simply “hey, here’s a new cure, no need to worry.”
If you can cope with the content, there’s not that much to criticize, though the book does slightly lose impetus after a while (I found, for instance, the story of Georgiy Eliava, a phage pioneer’s struggle against the Soviet machine took me too far off track). It does also occasionally slip into tabloid language – I know MRSA is often labelled a “superbug”, but the use of “bug” as an alternative for bacterium grates.
On the whole, despite the very depressing content, this was a good book. Many translations feel lumpy, somehow, like a loaf that hasn’t risen properly – this is very readable, and it would be impossible to tell it was a translation if the reader hadn’t been told. The story is told well, and strikingly too. There’s excellent use of the stories of real people involved in the fight against bacteria – both medics and patients. It’s just… I think now I’ve read it, I want to wash my hands. In fact, I’ll go and do it now…
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …