March 27th, 2008

_Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World_, Jessica Snyder Sachs

There were a number of times while I was reading this book that I asked R., hey, is this for real? He'd read about a lot of the research in the pages of Science News, but some of it surprised him as well. The publisher is Hill & Wang, a division of FSG that I am not familiar with, and I don't know anything one way or the other about the author.

I hope Snyder Sachs is the real deal, because the stuff in this book is amazing. She reaches well back into the 19th century, and around the world (and not just to other English speaking nations, either) to describe in detail how we have learned about and interacted (consciously) with the microbial world (it says bacterial and that's the focus, but virii and phages and so forth are also covered). In addition to supplying a really great, detailed description of antibiotic resistance, she gives a much broader view of MRSA than I have ever encountered before.

There's a lot about vaccines in here (and nothing about the aspect of vaccines that I am usually interested in), particularly vaccines built on top of mycobacteria and using those to "calm" the immune system to treat inflammatory diseases (Crohn's, irritable bowel, Raynaud's, etc.). She thoroughly covers the hygiene hypothesis (we're all sick because we don't encounter enough germs/the right kind of germs/at the right time in our life, etc.). There's some weirdly fascinating stuff about asthma (and how while exercise-induced asthma is ancient, allergy-induced asthma not so much), hayfever, cancers which are an artifact of the immune system not targeting the right stuff -- and how all of these have been "fixed" rapidly and with minimal side effects in lab animals and a few humans. Sometimes requiring ongoing treatments, but still.

Is it for real? *shrug* I'd love to hear the opinion of someone who is familiar with the research she's covering. She's admirably skeptical about phages (going so far as to compare the more extreme claims for them to Laetrile), given how little has come of all the money and hype that went in to them.

I'll be doing some digging over the next few days, to try to come up with a solid answer to the question of whether this book and this author is trustworthy. But, on first read through, I'm impressed as hell, and quite excited by some of the prospects she describes.

[Edited to add:] First cut: positive coverage of the book in the New York Times and Newsweek. She's been doing science writing for a while, and is well-respected.