Stories of the Scientists Behind Immunotherapy

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As the field of immunotherapy accelerates, so does the literature reporting on the path ahead. One of the newer books on the topic is A Cure Within: Scientists Unleashing the Immune System to Kill Cancer. It has a top-notch pedigree: the author, Neil Canavan, is a seasoned journalist with more than 20 years of experience reporting on science and medicine, and the publisher, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, was founded by one of the leading research centers in the world.

Mini Biographies

THE FIELD of immunotherapy is still relatively young, taking its first foothold in standard oncology care with the discovery of checkpoint inhibitors. For an emerging discipline, a lot has already been written. To get noticed as a topic-specific nonfiction narrative, a book needs to stand out from the crowd, offering a new take on an issue or using a delivery style that draws attention. A Cure Within uses an unusual but not altogether unique approach to the genre.


  • Title: A Cure Within: Scientists Unleashing the Immune System to Kill Cancer
  • Author: Neil Canavan
  • Publisher: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press
  • Publication date: October 2018
  • Price: $24.00, hardcover, 298 pages

Mr. Canavan has assembled his book based entirely on personal interviews with the investigators who have so far pioneered the field of immunotherapy. It is not a single narrative but rather 25 individual biographical sketches of the luminaries in the field. An added treat for readers is the addendum at the end of each bio-sketch, which includes the scientist’s hobbies, work philosophy, quotes from colleagues, and other interesting trivia.

Hand-drawn illustrations showing aspects of the science behind immunotherapy were included to help answer questions posed by the author in lay terms. They add a personal touch but, for the most part, serve as window dressing. The author notes about the cartoons, “Please look at them as fan autographs, if you will, gifted to me by my favorite stars.”

From Small Texas Town to Suburban Boston Neighborhood

MR. CANAVAN leads off his book of biographies with immunotherapy’s rock star, James Allison, PhD, the harmonica-playing recent Nobel Laureate who hails from an obscure little town in Texas. Dr. Allison, who has shared a stage with country-and-western legend Willie Nelson, is a colorful scientist with a charming indifference to fame. The author does a good job mixing background and science, giving readers a humanizing glimpse at the man behind the white coat and the complex science in checkpoint inhibitors.

Chapter 13 is about Steven Rosenberg, MD, PhD, well known to the readers of this publication for his pioneering work in immunotherapy, most notably with interleukin-2. Dr. Rosenberg presents an individualistic figure from the Bronx, born to parents who immigrated to the United States as teens. It is a compelling life story, and Mr. Canavan handles it with the sharp eyes and ears of a journalist.

“Research scientists are a rare breed, and this well-written book is filled with stories of the brilliant and dedicated researchers who made the dream of immunotherapy a reality.”
— Ronald Piana

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Dr. Rosenberg’s early curiosity about immunotherapy began with a fascinating case while he was a junior resident at the West Roxbury Veterans Affairs Medical Center. A patient who had been discharged 12 years earlier with metastatic gastric cancer had returned to have his gallbladder removed. Not only was he still alive after an original prognosis of dying within 6 months, but he was cancer-free. “He had undergone one of the most rare events in medicine—a spontaneous regression of his cancer, and as a resident that substantially struck my fancy,” said Dr. Rosenberg. A serendipitous event launched a stellar career.

A Giant Gone Too Soon

ONE CHAPTER that stands out is the story of Ralph Steinman, MD, the Canadian physician and researcher who, in 1973, discovered and named dendritic cells while working as a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University in New York. For his groundbreaking work, he was awarded the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2011, the same year he died. It is one of the best chapters in the book, detailing the extraordinary life of a true scientific giant.

This is not a science textbook or a rigorous examination of the science that has taken immunotherapy from a much-doubted concept to an emerging clinical field, which is now saving lives and offering potential for incredible leaps forward in the battle against cancer. Instead, it is a book about people who spend countless hours conducting grueling experiments, most of which fail. Research scientists are a rare breed, and this well-written book is filled with stories of the brilliant and dedicated researchers who made the dream of immunotherapy a reality. A Cure Within is recommended for readers of The ASCO Post.

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