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Mukherjee in April 2011
21 July 1970 |
New Delhi, India
Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction (2011)
Guardian First Book Award (2011)
|Thesis||The processing and presentation of viral antigens (1997)|
Siddhartha Mukherjee (born 21 July 1970) is an Indian-American physician, oncologist, and author best known for his 2010 book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. He studied biology at Stanford University, obtained a D.Phil. from University of Oxford, and an M.D. from Harvard University.
Since 2009, Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. He has been the Plummer Visiting Professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the Joseph Garland lecturer at the Massachusetts Medical Society, and an honorary visiting professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. A haematologist and oncologist by training, his research focuses on cancer therapy and gene functions related to blood cells.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer was a major breakthrough in his career. It received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. It was named one of the 100 most influential books written in English since 1923 by Time magazine, and one of the 100 notable books of 2010 by The New York Times Magazine. Based on the book, Ken Burns made a PBS Television documentary film Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies in 2015, and was nominated for an Emmy Award. In 2016, Mukherjee released The Gene: An Intimate History which chronicles the history of the gene and a response to the defining question of the future: What becomes of being human when we learn to “read” and “write” our own genetic information?
Siddhartha Mukherjee was born to a Bengali family in New Delhi, India. His father, Sibeswar Mukherjee, was an executive with Mitsubishi, and his mother Chandana Mukherjee, was a former schoolteacher from Calcutta (now Kolkata). He attended St. Columba's School in Delhi, where he won the school's highest award, the 'Sword of Honour', in 1989. As a biology major at Stanford University, he worked in Nobel Laureate Paul Berg's laboratory, defining cellular genes that change the behaviours of cancer cells. He earned membership in Phi Beta Kappa in 1992, and completed his B.S. degree in 1993.
Mukherjee won a Rhodes Scholarship for doctoral research at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. He worked on the mechanism of activation of the immune system by viral antigens. He was awarded a D.Phil. in 1997 for his thesis titled The processing and presentation of viral antigens. After graduation, he attended Harvard Medical School, where he earned his Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree in 2000. Between 2000 and 2003 he worked as a resident in internal medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital. From 2003 to 2006 he trained in oncology as a Fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (under Harvard Medical School) in Boston, Massachusetts.
In 2009, Mukherjee joined the faculty of the Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology, at the Columbia University Medical Center as an Assistant Professor of Medicine. The medical center is attached to the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
He was previously affiliated with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. As of 2017, his laboratory is based at Columbia University's Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center.
A trained haematologist and oncologist, Mukherjee's research focuses on the links between normal stem cells and cancer cells. He has been investigating the microenvironment ("niche") of stem cells, particularly on blood-forming stem cells. Blood-forming stem cells (called haematopoietic stem cells ) are present in the bone marrow in very specific microenvironments. The main blood-forming cells called osteoblasts are one of the principal components this environment. These cells regulate the process of blood cell formation and development, by providing them with signals to divide, remain quiescent, or maintain their stem cell properties. Mukherjee's research has been recognised through many grants from the National Institutes of Health and from private foundations, including the prestigious "Challenge Grant" awarded by the National Institutes of Health to pioneering researchers in 2009.
In work performed with collaborators in the 1990s and 2000s, Mukherjee's lab identified genes and chemicals that can alter the microenvironment, or niche, and thereby alter the behaviour of normal stem cells, as well as cancer cells. Two such chemicals studied in the lab – proteasome inhibitors and activin inhibitors — are currently in clinical trials with novel therapeutic uses as defined by these studies. The lab has also identified novel genetic mutations in myelodysplasia and acute myelogenous leukaemia and has played a leading role in finding therapies for these diseases in the clinical setting.
In 2010, Simon & Schuster published his book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer detailing the evolution of diagnosis and treatment of human cancers from ancient Egypt to the latest developments in chemotherapy and targeted therapy. O, The Oprah Magazine listed it in its "Top 10 Books of 2010." It was also listed in "The 10 Best Books of 2010" by The New York Times and the "Top 10 Non-fiction Books of 2010" by Time.
In 2011, The Emperor of All Maladies was nominated as a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. On 18 April 2011, it won the annual Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction; the citation called it "an elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal, into the long history of an insidious disease that, despite treatment breakthroughs, still bedevils medical science." Mukherjee also received the PEN-E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award in 2011. The magazine Time also nominated Mukherjee to its "100 most influential people" list and named his book one of the 100 best non-fiction books since 1923.
Mukherjee's 2016 book The Gene: An Intimate History provides a history of genetic research, but also delves into the personal genetic history of the author's family, including mental illness. The book discusses the power of genetics in determining people's health and attributes, but it also has a cautionary tone to not let genetic predispositions define fate, a mentality that led to the rise of eugenics in history and something he thinks lacks the nuance required to understand something as complex as human beings. The Gene was shortlisted for the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2016, "the Nobel prize of science writing". The book was also the recipient of the 2017 Phi Beta Kappa Society Book Award in Science.
In his 2016 article 'Same but different' in The New Yorker, Mukherjee attributed the most important genetic functions to epigenetic factors (such as histone modification and DNA methylation). Giving an analogy of his mother and her twin sister, he explains:
Chance events—injuries, infections, infatuations; the haunting trill of that particular nocturne—impinge on one twin and not on the other. Genes are turned on and off in response to these events, as epigenetic marks are gradually layered above genes, etching the genome with its own scars, calluses, and freckles.
The article, an excerpt from the chapter "The First Derivative of Identity" of his book The Gene: An Intimate History, was critiqued by geneticists such as Mark Ptashne, at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and John Greally, at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, because of over emphasis on histone modification and DNA methylation, while overlooking other important factors. They commented that these two processes have only minor influences in overall gene function. Steven Henikoff, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, opined that, "Mukherjee seemed not to realize that transcription factors occupy the top of the hierarchy of epigenetic information," and said, "histone modifications at most act as cogs in the machinery." It is now generally believed that histone modification and DNA methylations are major factors of epigenetic functions, aging and certain diseases, and with an ability to influence transcription factors. However, they contribute little to development. In response, Mukherjee did admit that omission of transcription factors "was an error" on his part.
Mukherjee also criticises IQ test as a measure of intelligence, and endorses the theory of multiple intelligences (introduced by Howard Gardner) over general intelligence. He asserts that the results of IQ tests for determining general intelligence do not represent intelligence in the real world. Reviewing the book in The Spectator, Stuart Ritchie, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, remarked that Gardner's theory is "debunked" and that "general intelligence is probably the most well-replicated phenomenon in all of psychological science."
Mukherjee also wrongly stated that "classical Darwinian evolution is that genes do not retain an organism’s experiences in a permanently heritable manner... Darwin discredited that model [of Lamarck]." But Darwin had no idea of the gene—the concept of which was established only in the 20th century. Science writer Razib Khan noted this erroneous conception, and explained that "Darwin worked in the pre-genetic era... he himself was quite open to Lamarckianism in some cases."
Mukherjee has won several awards including:
Mukherjee lives in New York and is married to artist Sarah Sze, winner of a MacArthur "Genius" grant and representative of the United States to the 2013 Venice Biennale. They have two daughters, Leela and Aria.