Here’s a narrative challenge: recount a quarter-century of lab experiments conducted by several investigative teams working separately from Kyoto to California. Now make the story urgent and give it a sense of Olympic-level competition that might change the face of medicine.

Mark Johnson delivers, with “Targeting the Good Cell,” a three-part narrative from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The project includes a staggering amount of supporting material: a glossary, multimedia elements, a reference chart for diseases that stem cell research might eventually help to treat, and sidebars from both sides of the ethical debate over the use of cells cultured in a lab. The race between competing research teams draws the reader on. The hunt for critical genes and the relevance of progress made with mouse vs. human cells keep the outcome uncertain until the very end.

Chronology leaps out as the only organizing principle for such a complex account, but Johnson further tames his material through spare, effective description. A university researcher recognizes an early sign of success—cell colonies “each resembling a crowded city viewed from space.”

Johnson also dissects the degree to which the scientists thrive or fail in their own small communities and hierarchies. He explains how careers, scientific progress, and the face of illness are transformed by researchers working in isolation and in competition, all hoping to be the first to find the cells that could make a difference.

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