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The Beautiful Cure - Daniel Davis ****

The subtitle of this book, 'Harnessing Your Body's Natural Defences' makes it sounds like a celebrity lifestyle book, or a collection of New Age nonsense. But this is a very different beast from its (dare I say it, possibly intentionally misleading) subtitle: instead its a scientific exploration of the immune system.

Despite the woo of alternative health practitioners, the immune system is not a single thing, but rather a complex collection of mechanisms that between them help us fight off invading organisms. And Daniel Davis's book is not a 'how to' manual, but rather a description of how we have gradually uncovered the workings of the many components and how it may be possible to make more of our immune system's powerful capabilities by manipulating it into doing an even better job than it does at the moment.

Professor of immunology Davis has an approachable, easy style, helped by the fact that he doesn't try to be literary. I loved the way that he comments 'It's common for science books which feature medical advances to include anecdotes of patients' stories as an emotive hook to the narrative. Encouraged by my publisher to do this, I asked my son, aged twelve at the time, what he thought of his asthma inhaler. He looked at me as if I'd just asked "Shall we go to Mars today?" and walked out of the room.' The only thing I'd add to his remark is the word 'bad', to make it 'It's common for bad science books...'

We discover a collection of detective stories as various scientists and teams in history (much of it surprisingly recent history) discover how different aspects of the immune system work. This proved an immensely complicated challenge, because of the sheer number of components involved, often interacting with each other, so that a single simple assumption like 'a foreign body triggers an immune reaction' proved far too simple. Davis brings both the effort required in this scientific work and the human nature of the researchers alive - I like that he has not covered up where there have been disputes and even legal action in pursuit of 'I got there first.'

I readily admit I am not a natural reader for this book. I hate anything medical - I'd rather not know and go on in blissful ignorance. But as this is really a book about molecular biology that happens to be oriented to the way the immune system deals with invaders and cancers I found it a lot less stressful than I had imagined.

There is only one reason I haven't given the book five stars - and that's because after a while, to the outsider it starts to get a bit samey. When you've heard of one molecule or set of molecules being tracked down through careful, repetitive work, it's quite similar to another molecule or molecules being tracked down. This is in no sense Davis's fault - he makes an excellent job of it - it's the nature of the science. As Davis has a physics background, he might forgive me for quoting Richard Feynman who, on discovering biology students had learned many esoteric names for biological components commented to them 'Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology.' The fact is biology is far more complex in terms of its component parts than anything in physics, and as a result it can be hard going.

'Yet another molecule' weariness only set in well through the book, and I would highly recommend it, whether you are the sort of person who thinks a 'detox drink' can reboot your immune system or just wonder why it's so difficult to provide an effective flu vaccine. Another excellent read from Daniel Davis.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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