Book Review: The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine by Francis S. Collins

Review by Rachel Zelkowitz

As a key leader of the Human Genome Project, Collins brings a unique perspective to the discussion of the promise and perils of genome-based medicine. His latest book presents an accessible and comprehensive assessment of genetic testing and its relevance to health care.

Collins targets the general public. To begin, he gives a rudimentary overview of Genetics 101, then lightly touches on more complex matters such as how the genetic cards a person is dealt play into the overall risk of heart disease, diabetes and what he calls “the big C” — cancer. Collins favors making genetic testing more widely available so people can understand their predisposition to diseases but acknowledges the difficulty for doctors and patients alike in interpreting the level of risk from such a predisposition.

Despite these uncertainties, Collins argues, now is the time to prepare for the future of personalized medicine, which tailors treatment to an individual’s genetic makeup. Each chapter includes practical suggestions, such as compiling a family medical history and researching common tests for genetic mutations linked to cancer. Collins also calls on government officials and other decision makers to bring personalized medicine into health policy. Today’s one-size-fits-all “standard of care” should start accounting for gene-based differences in how people respond to drugs, he says.

Readers hoping for more advanced discussions of personalized medicine may be disappointed by The Language of Life. But those looking for a basic and broad view of the field should be satisfied. Writing with the authority of one who has seen human genomics develop from its infancy, Collins offers a clear and hopeful vision of this field’s role in the future of medicine.

The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine by Francis S. Collins

Harper, 2010, 332 p., $26.99.