Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review: Blood Matters- Masha Gessen

In 2004 genetic testing revealed that Masha Gessen had a mutation that predisposed her to ovarian and breast cancer. The discovery initiated Gessen into a club of sorts: the small (but exponentially expanding) group of people in possession of a new and different way of knowing themselves through what is inscribed in the strands of their DNA. As she wrestled with a wrenching personal decision—what to do with such knowledge—Gessen explored the landscape of this brave new world, speaking with medical experts, religious thinkers, historians, and others facing genetic disorders.

This book was single-handedly responsible for narrowing down my interest in genetics to the field of medical and developmental genetics. Half memoir, half popular science, it leads us down the emotional pathway of someone burdened with the BRCA genes that give you an 80% chance of breast cancer and a 40% chance of ovarian cancer. Aside from being a fairly easy and gripping read, it also presents a lot of information on inherited disease and the methods being used to counteract it, from the pre-marriage genetic screening of the Dor Yeshorim Institute to prophylactic surgery for the removal of body parts ranging from breasts to colons. Whether she's talking about the history of the Ashkenazim or sufferers of Maple Syrup Urine Disease in the Amish community, Gessen keeps her writing interesting and informative without succumbing to the temptation to use overly complicated language. If you're interested in genetics but don't want to get into the heavier science, this is a great starting point!


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