Fatal flaws

Jay Ingram

Main review

I see protein folding as an important part of biology. But what happens when it goes wrong? This book looks at the diseases which can result. It is now the mainstream view that Kuru was caused by eating the brains of infected victims. The book shows, though, that it took quite a while for this to be accepted. There were doubts about the reports of cannibalism, and the lack of an obvious infective agent made this explanation seem unlikely.

Throughout the book the author looks at the way science really works, showing that things are never as straightforward as they seem with the benefit of hindsight. Scientists were slow to accept that a disease could be caused by an errant protein - surely there had to be some DNA somewhere for it to replicate (This mirrors the argument about the genetic code in the 1940's - surely DNA couldn't do enough, and it had to involve protein to store information). And Stanley Prusiner's coining of the term 'prion' - was this a case of appropriating other peoples research or was it more like a bet on the way science would proceed in the coming decades (if the latter then I think most people would agree that he won)

The book moves on to other diseases - mad cow disease and the human form CJD and the sometimes counterintuitive way a prion disease can move from one species to another. The last few chapters look at other diseases related to protein folding - Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS and Chronic traumatic encephalopathy - which may thus have a prion component.

I found this to be a very readable and informative book and would recommend it to anyone who wants a non-technical introduction to prion and protein folding diseases , or more generally to get a better understanding of the way science really works.

Reviews Elsewhere

The Amazon Reviews give this book high ratings, except for one who thought that it lacked coherence. I have found that some books (e.g. The Compatibility Gene) looking at the development of a science are aa bit too concerned with who does what and tend to miss the science , but I didn't feel that this was a problem with Fatal Flaws. The reviewer thought that Deadly Feasts deals with the subject better - I may have a look at that book to compare them.