Sunday, February 15, 2015


Most of our lives have been touched by cancer in some way. My paternal grandfather was diagnosed with bladder cancer a few years ago. Thankfully, he made a full recovery and continues to lead an active, full life. However, many people are not so fortunate. My boyfriend’s father unfortunately passed away from prostate cancer and this in fact motivated him to pursue cancer research. I myself graduated with a degree in biomedical science when I still had ambitions to become a doctor. However, despite the public’s awareness of cancer, the precise mechanism by which cancers develop is still not completely known. In Sue Armstrong’s fascinating biography of a cancer’s most important gene, p53: The Gene That Cracked the Cancer Code, Armstrong reveals the remarkable knowledge we have gained and yet how far we have to go.

Armstrong’s book is wonderfully succinct and easy-to-read. Her background as a journalist and science writer enable her to write with an ease and simplicity that are appealing to the general reader. However, her grasp of the scientific concepts and key discoveries related to the genes are admirable and commendable. Armstrong takes us along the journey from the discovery of the gene to the uncovering of its function and potential. She interviews key researchers and scientists in the p53 discovery process, such as Alfred Knudson, David Lane, and Joseph Fraumeni. This creates an interesting interweaving of the scientific discoveries of cancer and the fascinating lives of the scientists themselves. One particularly interesting story was of Mario Capecchi, whose prominence as a scientist could never have been predicated by his tumultuous upbringing involving a poet mother and life on the streets in Italy.

The book is engrossing, divided into well-organized chapters charting the progression from the ignorance of p53’s existence to the realization of its importance. Along the way, we discover its dual significance as a tumour suppressor as well as a vindictive tumour driver once mutated. For anyone interested in cancer, whether academically or generally, p53 is informative, fascinating, and meticulously researched and interviewed.

As Professor Gerard Evans describes in p53, about one third of us will be diagnosed with cancer in our lives and one quarter will die from the disease. Statistics like these certainly alert us to the attention we should pay to cancer in our lives. Fortunately Armstrong’s p53 concludes on a positive note, reminding us that the book is yet unfinished – discoveries continue to unravel the mysteries of p53 and its role in cancer every day.

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical baritone. He plays five instruments and speaks three languages (with a few in progress). Mike holds degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, but it was obvious from an early age that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

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