[Updated: 7/17 9:15 am PT] Summer is here, so there’s a bit of a lull on the average biotech pro’s schedule. If there’s ever an opportunity to take a breather from the relentless scientific, medical, and investor meetings that dominate the industry calendar, this is it. Time to catch up on reading a few good books.
The good news is there’s no shortage of people writing thought-provoking things today about biology, healthcare, the global economy, and other topics that are bound to appeal to creative folks in the biotech industry. Here are a few books that I’ve heard recommended recently on my travels in biotech. Thanks to Jim Sabry of Genentech, Carol Gallagher of AnaptysBio, David Shaywitz of Theravance, consultant Stewart Lyman, and biotech entrepreneur Katrine Bosley for their thoughts.
If you have other books you’d like to add to the list, please send me a note at email@example.com with a short explanation of why you liked it. I may update this column throughout the week to beef up the list.
“The Emperor of All Maladies” by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. This book has gotten loads of critical acclaim over the past year, including a Pulitzer Prize. It’s written with the scientific and medical authority of a physician, the big picture context you’d expect from a historian, and a human touch that can only come from someone who wrestles with the challenges of treating terminally ill patients day-to-day. As someone who writes regularly about advances in the treatment of cancer, I’d say it’s probably the best book I’ve read this year.
Carol Gallagher, the executive chair of San Diego-based AnaptysBio, agrees this is highly-recommended reading for biotech executives. “Dr. Mukherjee, an oncologist who trained at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is a beautiful writer who provides a sense of the scientific and human struggles as well as the mistakes we have made in our efforts to make better treatments for patients with cancer,” Gallagher said via e-mail. “It captures the Don Quixote swinging at windmills sensation that we often all feel as we try to reverse the march of cancer. He incorporates the perspectives of patients when faced with being part of the real-time experiment of evaluating new treatments. An important perspective we should all keep as we try to develop new cancer agents.”
“The Eighth Day of Creation,” by Horace Freeland Judson. This is a classic, first published in 1979, which Genentech’s Sabry recommended as fascinating and well worth reading in 2012. When Judson died a year ago, his obituary in the New York Times said this book was “regarded as the definitive account of the breakthroughs that transformed molecular biology in the mid-20th century.” I have to confess I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on the list now.
“A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock” by Evelyn Fox Keller. This is another biology classic that Sabry recommends, which I haven’t had a chance to pick up. But this biography of a Nobel Prize winning biologist sheds a lot of light on not just the history of molecular biology, and also the challenges women face in science—many of which sadly still endure long after McClintock died in 1992.
“The Creative Destruction of Medicine” by Dr. Eric Topol. Quite a few doctors are irritated by the changes going on in their world, as their autonomy and incomes are being limited by various healthcare reforms. Topol takes a different tack, with an upbeat view on how genomics and mobile computing devices are going to shake the healthcare industry out of its worst and most inefficient habits. There are points where I think Topol is too optimistic about how quick and radical the change will be—after all, information technology has been around a long time, and hospitals still struggle to use it—but this is a highly accessible read about changes bound to shake up this industry that makes up about one-sixth of the U.S. economy. Steve Burrill, the biotech investor, chimed in with a recommendation for this book in his recent talk at the Life Science Innovation Northwest conference. Author David Ewing Duncan had an interesting review of Topol’s ideas in The Atlantic in March.
“Just Kids” by Patti Smith. In the spirit that all scientists and executives should seek to be well-rounded, here’s a recommendation that has nothing to do with science. The famous musician apparently has a lot to say about growing up, enough for Bosley to recommend this autobiography. As one reviewer on Amazon put it, “here is Patti Smith lying bare exactly how she came to be what she became. The result is a fascinating and spellbinding narrative that you can scarcely set down.”
“Burning Entrepreneur – How to Launch, Fund, and Set Your Start-Up On Fire!” by Brad Feld. The high-profile tech VC, a backer of Zynga, is one of the best bloggers on tech startups you can find on the Web. Now he has an e-book out which is full of inspiration, which is often in short supply during these hard times for biotech. David Shaywitz, the director of strategic and commercial planning at South San Francisco-based Theravance, said Feld’s book “captures passion and excitement of innovation, manages to be both inspirational and down-to-earth, with obvious affection for people and the sharing and developing of exciting ideas.”
“White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine” by Carl Elliott. This book does a solid job of summing up the many ways in which the modern pharmaceutical industry lost its moral compass. While I’m sure many good people in the industry are tired of hearing about ethical lapses, denying the problem isn’t going to help solve it, or restore broad public support for pharmaceutical R&D. Thanks to Stewart Lyman for the recommendation.
“Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism,” by Richard Tofel. I’m reading this one now. It has nothing to do with biotech or science, but says a lot about a little-known character who has had a big influence on the world of journalism today. Many people in journalism don’t even know his name, but Kilgore was the driving force who led the Wall Street Journal to become the most widely read and respected financial news source of the 20th century.
“Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution” by Victor McElheny. Watson, of course, is one of the biggest names in DNA, as the co-discoverer of the famous double helix structure. Watson is also a controversial character who McElheny got to know well later in life when Watson was the director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and McElheny was the communications director. Thanks to my colleague Wade Roush for this suggestion.
[Added: 7/16, 10:40 am PT]
“Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip and Dan Heath. This book “uses an “elephant / rider” metaphor with our rational brains being the ‘rider’ trying to control our emotional ‘elephant’ along a path that is often full of roadblocks,” says Jacquelyn Miller of Foundation Medicine. The book uses a lot of case studies about ingrained behaviors, but Miller says the authors found a way to tie them all together with a clear framework. “This book does a great job of taking huge problems (health care, anyone?) and showing how small changes can be very impactful,” Miller says.
[Added: 7/17 9:15 am PT]
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. This book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman who gave rise to the famed HeLa cells that have been integral to biology for decades. Maureen Suda recommends this title, which earned lots of critical acclaim in 2010. “The book is a reminder that the cells were part of someone — a mother, daughter, sister, wife — not just a tissue sample. It provides reflection on the intersection point of race, poverty and science,” Suda says.
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