An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives

An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives

by Matt Richtel


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A groundbreaking exploration of the human immune system—the key to our health and longevity—from the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and acclaimed author of A Deadly Wandering.

A cancer patient risen from the grave. An HIV patient considered a medical marvel. Two “invisible” women suffering the frustration and pain of autoimmunity. Matt Richtel uses the stories of these four people to tell the incredible story of the human immune system.

In this vivid narrative, Richtel builds on his acclaimed stories on immunotherapy in the New York Times, combining the latest science with interviews and engaging anecdotes from the world’s leading researchers to reveal how the body marshals its forces to fight bacteria, viruses, parasites, and tumors. He also explains how, sometimes, this wondrous system that is our first line of defense can become a threat, attacking our organs and other systems.

While modern life has freed us from many of the diseases that plagued humans in the past, it also puts unprecedented stress on the very system that keeps us healthy. The result has been an explosion of autoimmune disorders. Providing a clear look at the forces that drive survival and the body’s evolutionary history, Richtel details how immunologists are advancing medical breakthroughs; illuminates the close connection between the immune system and mental health, beauty, and weight; examines the latest findings about diet and nutrition on immunity; and offers us a glimpse of a future in which we lead longer, more comfortable lives. He also warns that we are weakening the system that protects us: rather than trusting the bodies’ natural defenses, many people turn to antibacterial soaps, immune boosters, and other products, resulting in the development of dangerous drug-resistant microbes that threaten health.

An Elegant Defense is the first work of popular science to look at this vital human system that is as complex and intricate as the brain yet remains widely misunderstood. Joining the ranks of The Emperor of All Maladies and I Contain Multitudes, An Elegant Defense is an exhilarating and wondrous exploration of the immune system that transforms our knowledge of the human body and offers advice to help improve wellness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062698537
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 45,440
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter and bestselling nonfiction and mystery author. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Meredith, a neurologist, and their two children. In his spare time, he plays tennis and piano and writes (not very good) songs. Visit him online at

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Part I Lives in the Balance

1 The Ties That Bind 3

2 Jason 16

3 Bob 29

4 Linda and Merredith 33

Part II The Immune System and the Festival of Life

5 The Bird, Dog, Starfish, and Magic Bullet 47

6 The Festival 57

7 Festival Crashers 61

8 The Mystery Organ 73

9 The B-Word 85

10 T Cells and B Cells 94

11 Vaccines 101

12 The Infinity Machine 111

13 Transplant 119

14 The Immune System's Fingerprint 133

15 Inflammation 142

16 Fever 158

17 Flash Gordon 170

18 The Harmonious Way 182

19 Three Wise Men and the Monoclonal Antibody 184

20 A Second Immune System 192

Part III Bob

21 Sex Machine 211

22 Grid 214

23 The Phone Call 227

24 CD4 and CD8 232

25 Magic 241

26 The Prime 247

Part IV Linda and Merredith

27 Linda 261

28 The Wolf 268

29 Invisible Evidence 281

30 Best of Both Worlds (Sort Of) 291

31 Merredith 295

32 Should You Pick Your Nose? 315

33 Microbiome 335

34 Stress 350

35 Sleep 360

Part V Jason

36 A Word About Cancer 371

37 Laughter and Tears 377

38 The Lazarus Mouse 395

39 Wound Healing 405

40 Programmed Death 416

41 The Breakthrough 429

42 Jason Races Time 432

43 Shepherd of Death 438

44 Trials, Personal and Clinical 443

45 The Other Shoe 452

Part VI Homecoming

46 Bob 463

47 Linda 473

48 Jan and Ron 480

49 Jason Down the White Tunnel 495

50 Jason Rises 510

51 Apollo 11 513

52 Home 514

53 Jason's Way 531

54 The Meanings of Life 534

55 The Meaning of Jason 549

Acknowledgments 557

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An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Darla3 9 months ago
Richtel’s book manages quite a feat: binding storytelling with science. By naming, describing, and assigning images (e.g., first responders, scouts, police officers) to different cell types, he makes the immune system science readable and applicable not only to the four patients profiled but also to any patient or physician. Have you wondered what advantages immunotherapy holds over chemo? Have you wondered why autoimmune disorders are so tough to treat and they continue to become more common? Is it really so bad to skip handwashing and antibiotics now and then? Top scientists and medical doctors offer their insight on these questions and more. Readers will be fascinated at how many mechanisms our immune system has to control. As a biomedical copyeditor who still has many concepts to learn, this book has been immensely valuable for not reading like a textbook. The one personal drawback of this book is that as an agnostic, Richtel can’t see that the overwhelming complexity of human immunity had to have been divinely created, not evolved, and that human “diversity” alone won’t be enough to solve the medical problems humanity has gotten itself into.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago