Book review: The Compatibility Gene, by Daniel M. Davis

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 10:18am

The Compatibility Gene
by Daniel M. Davis
Allen Lane
4 stars

Peter Forbes

Daniel Davis is director of research at the University of Manchester Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research, and The Compatibility Gene deals with just such a targeted area of study: the immune system. The title primarily refers to tissue compatibility, as in transplants and the immune system.

The immune system is almost as specific to each individual as our fingerprints. The author has his immune genes typed to check for compatibility with his wife (there is a theory that our immune genes are involved in sexual attraction). He discovers that, on a database of 18 million people, only four individuals worldwide have his immune profile; 6 per cent of those on the database have no matches at all. Besides sexual attraction, the immune system is thought to be involved in fighting disease, pregnancy and the brain.

This makes the science of immunology extremely difficult: how do you find underlying principles when so many cases are exceptions? It also makes the job of a populariser such as Davis doubly difficult.

Davis sugars the pill of exploring unresolved research by focusing on the lives of the researchers and their struggles.

The story begins with transplants and tissue rejection. The pioneer and the author's hero, Sir Peter Medawar, was drawn to the subject after a wartime plane crashed near his home in Oxford in the summer of 1940. The pilot was severely burned and, after visiting him in hospital, Medawar set himself the task of solving the problem as to why skin grafts are usually rejected unless they come from the body of the patient.

The rationale for blood transfusions had, since 1901, been understood. This part of the immune system is relatively simple, with its four main blood groups: A, B, AB and O. But the rules for skin grafts are far more complicated. When Davis was presented with the results of his immune profile, he was told "just don't get ill" - his matches were in Germany and the US.

Guardian News & Media