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Infectious: fascinating stories throughout history

Infectious: Pathogens and How We Fight Them is a new popular science book written by fellow immunologist and BSI member, Dr John Tregoning. Immunologists dedicate their careers to answering questions about the power and complexity of the immune system. Dr Tregoning, a reader in respiratory infections at Imperial College London, has focused his research on infectious diseases. With this experience, he has written a timely homage to the scientific innovations in history that have led to the world being able to combat infectious disease. Here, we find out more about his book and join him in celebrating research efforts in the last hundred years, from immunology and virology to microbiology and epidemiology.


“It resparks the desire to learn about immunology,” says Tregoning. “The immune system is incredibly complex and equally fascinating – the never-ending knowledge we’re discovering drives every field. With this book, I hope to not only inform and educate others, but also celebrate how far we’ve come in the past hundred years, and maybe even make someone laugh!”

Infectious uncovers the marvels of the human body and its defences when it comes under attack while navigating through captivating success stories in immunology and virology. It’s a mixture of scientific explainers and interesting anecdotes through the ages: Tregoning explains, “The book showcases the underpinning mechanisms of ’ologies under infectious disease, such as microbiology, immunology and epidemiology, but then also looks into therapies and vaccines, connected by the history of science that runs through it to explain where these ideas came from.”

Adding some historical perspective and unique insight, the narrative carries the reader along while being both entertaining and informing. The book describes different personalities behind some of the most important breakthroughs in controlling, preventing and treating infectious disease. “It’s the tip of the iceberg!” declares Tregoning. “I wanted to readdress the balance by highlighting some incredible scientists that are less heard of. Even out of those sufficiently known, the ones getting into public discussions are few and far between. I tried covering lots of different areas so that even immunologists, who might know more about the immunology side, might be interested in finding out about less known microbiology or epidemiology.”

The book showcases the underpinning mechanisms of ’ologies under infectious disease, such as microbiology, immunology and epidemiology, but then also looks into therapies and vaccines, connected by the history of science that runs through it to explain where these ideas came from.

I was curious to hear some examples of favourite topics and the stories behind them. Tregoning highlights Félix d’Hérelle, described in the book as a ‘French-Canadian microbiologist with a rather striking beard-moustache combo that a modern-day hipster would be jealous of’. He enlightens me, “Félix d’Hérelle led a remarkable life through one of the most disruptive periods in history. In the early 20th century, he discovered bacteriophages but also travelled around the world, had a run-in with the secret police in Soviet Russia and was arrested by Nazi armed forces in the Second World War.”

Tregoning’s first book was written during the pandemic and while this context is underlined throughout and grounded by the history of vaccines, the breadth of infectious diseases surpasses your typical overview. “It’s not a book about COVID-19, or the vaccine or the pandemic – it’s so much more than that,” he explains. “I focus on the history of science rather than science itself, aiming for a lighter touch. And, as I said, it’s meant to be a celebration of the enormous progress in the understanding of infectious diseases that has led to not just having a COVID vaccine within 50 days of sequencing the viral genome but has also paved the way for HIV going from an untreatable disease to a chronic but manageable condition, HCV now being curable, and reaching 40 malaria-free countries globally. These stories get lost in the general doom and gloom.”

Described as ‘the best, most accessible, high quality science book I have read this year’ by Jeremy Farrar (Director of the Wellcome Trust), Infectious is framed at a level understandable with GCSE science. However, Tregoning points out “I hope it can be of interest to scientists as much as non-scientists. Even for my fellow immunologists, we’re all quite siloed in the areas we’re experts in and this covers the bigger picture – it’s an overview of the field we work in, and you’ll be able to see ‘where you fall’ within this wider map.”

When initially flicking through the book I wondered about how complex information on pathogens infecting the lungs could be distilled to produce something both engaging and informative. Tregoning has drawn on over 25 years of experience as a scientist to write over 300 compelling pages. The secret? Dedication and collaboration. “It’s a huge collaborative effort involving so many different people,” he explains. “I started from the framework I use in my lectures and from different talks at conferences and the BSI Congress. From there, the most important aspect was my network. I’m incredibly grateful to all my friends and colleagues who helped with various chapters. I also incorporated a lot of ideas that came from Twitter to ensure there was a diverse cast of scientists represented, especially those who don’t usually get enough recognition.”

This popular science book is illustrated with 10 illuminating illustrations created by BSI member, Ash Uruchurtu. “I knew I wanted some pictures for the book, so I applied for a BSI Communicating Immunology grant. Thanks to the amazing support from the Society, my stick diagrams were transformed into beautiful pictures. In particular, I’d like to thank Erika Aquino, BSI Public Engagement Manager, for all her support with the grant application – she was incredibly helpful getting this off the ground.” Tregoning proudly adds, “Even better, these illustrations are under a Creative Commons license so they’re free for everyone to use. You can download them for all your science communications needs!”

It’s inspiring to see a book that effectively communicates the complexity of infectious diseases, shining the spotlight on immunology at a time during which it has never been more prominent in public debate.

 

It’s inspiring to see a book that effectively communicates the complexity of infectious diseases, shining the spotlight on immunology at a time during which it has never been more prominent in public debate. The pandemic has been a challenging time for all of us and immunologists have and continue to face up to those challenges with strong voices explaining where we’re at and what we understand so far. Learning from this experience and maintaining this level of engagement with different audiences is vital and will make us better prepared for whatever the future may hold. When asked about his own takeaways, Tregoning reflects “I now realise that writing a book is not a trivial thing to do. It has been one of my goals for a long time, so I took the opportunity when my lab shut down because of the restrictions to start this project. I’m eternally indebted to my wife without whom this wouldn’t be possible. I also want to acknowledge Dan Davis, another BSI member, who provided inspiration as well as helpful and friendly advice.”

I’d love to see someone reading it on the tube, and maybe even laugh at something I’ve written. I hope readers enjoy uncovering the mysteries of the immune system while learning about the history of science as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

Infectious ends on a familiar note: ‘we certainly don’t know everything, not even close’, outlining remaining questions such as virus transmission, susceptibility among individuals, the link between the mind and the body and the unclear effect of the human genome in controlling infection. Tregoning concludes “I want to inspire, even if it’s just one person, to get into immunology or infectious disease research. I’d love to see someone reading it on the tube, and maybe even laugh at something I’ve written. I hope readers enjoy uncovering the mysteries of the immune system while learning about the history of science as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.”

 

Interview by Teresa Prados


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