Book Review

Vijay Shankar

Anton Amann & David Smith:
Volatile Biomarkers. Non-Invasive Diagnosis in Physiology and Medicine.

Hardcover: 600 pages
Publisher: Elsevier; 1 edition (May 27, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0444626131
ISBN-13: 978-0444626134
Price: 162.55 USD

Fishing Biomarkers Out of Thin Air

Gases from our body orifices hold clues about health, disease and therapy. Can this outrageously expensive book educate you on such volatile biomarkers? Yes – if you overlook its manifold shortcomings.

Everyone is curious about that special whiff of asparagus in the pee, morning garlic breath and the characteristically offensive odour produced just before we flush the toilet. No wonder we are curious; all of these smells hold gaseous hints about your health, signalling hidden diseases that you might be carrying. This leads some of us to curiosity about their origins, and to exploring how they vary at different times in different peoples.

Anton Amann and David Smith have taken on the task of clarifying the detection of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In their new Elsevier book, Volatile Biomarkers, they deliver a variety of answers given by physiologists, physicians, engineers, and chemists.

At first glance (and according to the publisher’s notes), this book seems to be a tantalising “urgent need” for VOC experts. It might help experienced specialists to recapitulate in a nutshell what has been achieved so far and where stones are left unturned. However, it does not fit into any one particular genre of advanced tomes. Your Lab Times reviewer eventually realised that this outrageously expensive text book is a motley collection of articles belonging to various categories – protocols, original articles, reviews and commentary.

For the curious reader, or a VOC beginner, this book is both a gift and a curse. The gift lies in certain extremely well-written chapters. But alas! They are poorly positioned within the body of the hard-bound text. Mostly dealing with exhaled breath analysis, the interesting chapters involving the physiology of respiration, components of breath in healthy and ill subjects, potentials and problems in sampling and analysing them, and the challenges of bringing them to clinic are locked some distance beyond the start.

However, the style and language of those well-written chapters are educative and have been reviewed. Advances in the field have been commented upon appropriately. These chapters take the reader through both the concepts and technologies in exhaled breath analysis.

Four weighty minus points

“Ooooh that smell... can’t you smell that smell? Ooooh that smell... the smell of death surrounds you ...” Photo: Jon Callas

What put your reviewer off were the following: First, the book begins with a chapter on statistical issues. This isn’t a good strategy for luring the reader into the subject. Second, the book is peppered with grammatical and spelling errors. This does not affect its clarity, but a respected publisher should have avoided schoolboy errors. Third, a book published eight years ago on this subject is repeatedly mentioned. Though this encourages the reader to check the book out of the library, this is discouraging.

Fourth, for an otherwise informative book, there are some missing items, including a clear-cut overview of the field in the first chapter or at least in the preface, a glossary and a list of abbreviations. As mentioned above, the book is written by a group of authors across various disciplines. So the missing lists give rise to confusion about abbreviations and technical terms amongst cross-disciplinary readers.

A lot of information nevertheless

Nevertheless, the book is packed with information, particularly in chapters on the technical aspects of the analysis of volatile biomarkers and their importance in occupational and urban medicine. The detailed chapters on physiological and clinical studies of exhaled breath and volatile compounds excreted from the human body are supplemented with comprehensive photos, sketches, tables and graphs that make the reader’s life easier, helping them imagine breath sampling and analysis in the lab.

In sum, this book will provide you with plenty of information along with a large side-helping of despair. Had its minus points been attended to, curious readers would never release this book from their grasp. Let us hope that there will be another edition soon. In the current state it is, sadly, almost unreadable.

Letzte Änderungen: 21.03.2014