Every major field has its leading thinkers, and the biology of cancer is no different. What makes their impact heard better is when one of those leaders writes a book about it. Given my interest in molecular biology of cancer, I naturally have my favorite such book on the topic – Robert Weinberg’s One Renegade Cell.
Weinberg’s focus is on what he knows best: the mechanisms that promote and regulate the proliferation of normal and malignant cells. And for that, his explanations are the best out there. These explanations take up the first half of the book, corresponds to the early events in the development of a tumor, and makes up a coherent story. For example, he covers oncogenes, tumor suppressors, apoptosis, and to a lesser extent DNA repair, in relatively easy-to-follow language.
In the second half of the book, Weinberg refers to other aspects of cancer progression, more reflective of the later stages of cancer – angiogenesis, immune evasion and metastasis. He essentially provides the highlight reel for these aspects of cancer, and I felt that the transitions to such topics could have used some work. But that’s okay in my opinion, because Weinberg comes right out and says it on the cover – this book is specifically about *the beginning* of cancer, first and foremost.
Weinberg also avoids using overwhelmingly long lists of references that are typical of more scientific writing, as well as skipping over the many highly-technical details that are involved in actually conducting such research, making it more accessible to non-experts. Indeed, he defines every term in a way that probably only requires a minimal background in biology to understand.
By telling the story of the historical discovery of cancer, Weinberg is able to introduce gradually the intricacies and complications of the genes and proteins involved (oncogenes, tumor suppressor genes, etc.) for the general reader. He characterizes cancer cells as renegade because, unlike normal body cells, they “disregard the needs of the community of cells,” they are “selfish and unsociable,” and are only interested in “their own proliferative advantage.” By comparison, normal cells hold down cell numbers by “inducing them to commit suicide” (apoptosis). And as he explains these complicated matters, Weinberg paints a picture of the competing theories of the early stages of cancer that is accessible to the educated non-biologist, and still informative enough for the learned biologist.