Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race
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Disclaimer: This is an unofficial summary and analysis. Please consult a professional before attempting to experiment with gene editing.
Walter Isaacson’s Perspective
Walter Isaacson is a historian, journalist, and proclaimed biographer. He is currently a Professor of History at Tulane and an advisory partner at Perella Weinberg Partners, a financial advisory firm. His former positions include CEO of the Aspen Institute, chairman of CNN and TIME magazine editor.
In literature circles, Isaacson is well-known for his biographical efforts. He is the author of best-selling biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Leonardo da Vinci.
The Code Breaker is a fascinating ode to scientists who made remarkable discoveries about our genome. It focuses on Jennifer Doudna, who received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and her colleague, microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier. Although the Nobel-prize-winning gene-editing pioneer is the central figure of this publication, Isaacson offers to look at other scientists, their discoveries, and how they can change our lives. According to Isaacson and the scientific community, Doudna’s findings promise to cure many life-threatening illnesses.
Bill Gates chose The Code Breaker as one of his top 5 favorite books of 2021.
StoryShot #1: The Double Helix Changed Jennifer Doudna’s Life
The first quarter of The Code Breaker provides a brief biography of Jennifer Doudna. As a child, she found her aspiration in learning and education. When she was in sixth grade, she understood that she wanted to connect her life with chemistry and genetics. One day, she came home from school and found a book called “The Double Helix” by James Watson. The girl thought it was a detective book and put it aside. A few weeks later, she decided to give it a chance. Although it wasn’t the book she envisioned, it turned out to be a detective book somehow.
The Double Helix talked about people who tried to unravel the ultimate mysteries of human life. The adventure to untangle our DNA was loaded with fascinating characters, fruitful partnerships, and contention. The book became an inspiration for little Jennifer to become a scientist. Growing up, she was told that “women don’t become scientists.” Despite many challenges, Doudna got to establish herself as a biochemist. Eventually, she unraveled the mystery that remained unsolved in The Double Helix.
StoryShot #2: CRISPR Gene-Editing is Used to Cure Cancer, Create Vaccines and Designer Babies
CRISPR is the remarkable discovery Doudna and her colleagues made. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It is a system bacteria have used for millennia to combat viruses. When a virus attacks bacteria, they remember a portion of its code. If the virus returns later, the bacteria can use knowledge of its code to tackle the virus. This mechanism is essential for living organisms to develop immunity to viruses they faced before. This is what we need to defeat COVID-19 and many future pandemics. In fact, instead of simply giving us immunity, CRISPR can destroy the virus. This means biotechnology allows us to combat new viruses and their mutations. Eventually, scientists will need just a few days to recode CRISPR.
Doudna’s discovery is now being implemented in a vaccine against COVID-19. It has also been tested to cure cancer and several genetic diseases, including sickle cell anemia. Moreover, CRISPR has the potential to select, enhance, or suppress certain genetic traits in embryos. In 2018, the technology helped create the first “designer babies” with a built-in immunity to HIV, although this caused a massive negative response and led to their creator’s imprisonment.
StoryShot #3: CRISPR’s Discovery was The Result of International Team Work
The author’s focus on Doudna’s contribution to CRISPR’s discovery gives the story a slight American bias. At the same time, the Nobel Prize Laureate herself emphasizes the importance of teamwork. Her international team consists of people from all over Europe, and the similarities they share (cultural, for instance) helped boost the group’s synergy.
Although the CRISPR breakthrough is strongly associated with the work of American scientists, the author notes that convergence shouldn’t be ignored. He makes an analogy with radar and the atomic bomb. These inventions are considered American-made, but the truth is that other countries conducted their research in the same field and approximately at the same time. He even points out that refugees from Europe and their knowledge helped build an atomic bomb. The same thing happened with CRISPR and other discoveries in chemistry and biotechnology. By and large, it is a product of collaboration, and most of those who participated in it remained in the shadows, at least from the public standpoint.
StoryShot #4: BioTech Revolution is The Future
Isaacson points out that he has written biographies on some of the most influential individuals within the tech sphere, like Steve Jobs. Computer technology has been the most influential sector over the last three or four decades. That said, the author believes the future is biotechnology. Instead of merely coding microchips, it will be possible to code our DNA or a vaccine to fight pandemics like COVID-19.
The technology revolution brings lots of investment to laboratories and institutes. At the same time, many aspiring individuals work from their garages and dorm rooms, just like Mark Zuckerberg did with Facebook. While the Internet era spawned cyber hackers, the new achievements in biotechnology can lead to biohackers. The worry here is that biohacking is far more dangerous than cyberhacking. For example, there are already individuals altering their muscle mass and developing DNA vaccines for Coronavirus from the comfort of their homes. The most notable example of this is Josiah Zayner. Josiah Zayner is a former NASA scientist and biohacker who provides CRISPR kits to enable the public to experiment with editing bacterial DNA.
Despite the risks, Isaacson believes those who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world are often the ones who do. So, although research scientists might dislike citizen science, one of these amateur scientists may become the biotech version of Steve Jobs.
There is also a fantastic opportunity for companies within this area. Boston has the most research hospitals per capita of any place. This makes it no surprise that Kendall Square in Cambridge is becoming the new Silicon Valley.
StoryShot #5: There’s A Patent War Over CRISPR
Doudna and her team are not unique in finding genome editing solutions. Competitive laboratories also have a lot to offer. While competition is the mother of progress, it has caused a significant patent battle. Jennifer Doudna and her teammates from the University of California, Berkeley, are in the red corner of the patent boxing match. Feng Zhang & Co. from the Harvard/MIT Broad Institute are in the blue corner.
It’s not hard to see that owning one of the most promising future technologies is at stake. The market for medical solutions for curing diseases and human genetic improvements is estimated at billions of dollars, and everyone wants to grab a bigger share of the pie. The battle between brilliant minds and the mighty corporations behind them is bristling with accusations of fraud, betrayal, and moral conduct violations. It’s a drama that evolves at the ethical, legal, and financial levels. Through interviews with eminent biotech personalities, you can gain insight into the direction things are going.
StoryShot #6: Ethical Dilemmas Over CRISPR Should Be Taken Seriously
Tweaking our genome opens up endless prospects to improve human health and well-being. Wouldn’t we seize the opportunity if we could cure schizophrenia or AIDS by simply changing a few things in our code?
Technology based on bacteria peculiarities has prospects for medical applications in more than 20 areas. It possesses the potential to cure cancer, blindness, atherosclerosis, and many other conditions we wish never to encounter. CRISPR seems like a godsend to smooth out our imperfections, but the devil is always in the details. What if our imperfections will be gone with something vital to our humanity? What if we lose our compassion, sympathy, and wisdom with the pieces of code we intend to edit out?
Even if we pursue a noble goal by interfering with the structure of human DNA, ethical matters remain a topical issue. Isaacson talks about He Jiankui, the Chinese pioneer in designer baby-making. When answering Doudna’s criticism of his manipulations with the genome code of twins Lulu and Nana, he pointed out that his purpose was to protect them from possible HIV infection. HIV-positive individuals are stigmatized in China, and he simply wanted to give the twins a chance for a better life.
If we solve the issue with diseases and life-threatening conditions, we will face another one: “Is it OK to ‘craft’ designer babies?” The information our genes carry likely gives us the diversity we need. If you delete or tweak something in our code, there is a chance we will lose this diversity. Moreover, peculiarities in our code can be villains and heroes simultaneously. Scientists have established that the code that is the root cause of sickle cell anemia helps fight malaria. Could it be that removing something bad would cause even more significant problems? What are the boundaries between essential needs and abuse, and how can we not cross them? The book attempts, if not to answer these questions, but at least to offer us food for thought.
StoryShot #7: CRISPR Can Create Issues of Selectivity and Inequality
The book raises many other ethical and moral issues. If we can heal humanity, where do we start? CRISPR technology in practice costs one million dollars, or even more. Does this mean that only the rich will benefit from it? How can we decide who will get their treatment and who will be forced to continue living with their disease?
After all, if we come up with a solution to combat the most severe diseases, this does not mean that the carriers themselves will want to introduce their lives to change. The Code Breaker quotes a man with sickle cell disease. Although the illness affected his life, its impact isn’t exclusively negative. He learned patience and a positive outlook on life, and he would not want to lose it. Therefore, if he were offered treatment for his disease, he would refuse.
It’s easy to see why so many gracefully embrace their imperfections. Challenges build character. Would Roosevelt have been the Roosevelt we know if he had never been exposed to polio? What about Miles Davis?
StoryShot #8: The World is Using CRISPR to Tackle COVID-19
CRISPR could become our primary weapon in the fight against the most pressing issue at the time of this writing, i.e., the COVID-19 pandemic. Isaacson took the time to explain how the virus works and how it spread to pandemic proportions. Labs have worked on the cutting-edge mRNA vaccine, built upon tweaking the genes of the COVID-19 virus. Many people are concerned that the vaccine could also change their genes. The Code Breaker tries to answer their burning questions regarding the virus and how to defeat it.
StoryShot #9: We Need to Be Able to Reverse CRISPR
Scientists like Doudner are in the process of developing ways to tackle CRISPR if things go wrong. Although this technology has tremendous potential, we are still unaware of how changing genetic code in one way will impact other genetic variables. We can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that some individuals may use CRISPR technology for evil. This is why understanding how to reverse CRISPR is as important as further developing this technology.
Final Summary and Review of The Code Breaker
The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson is a fascinating read about the gene-editing breakthrough and the people who made it possible. Although it touches upon a complex topic, Isaacson’s captivating storytelling style and the use of layman language make the book easy to understand. If you enjoy hearing about the figures of women in fields historically dominated by men, or you’d like to know more about how remarkable scientific discoveries are made, The Code Breaker is worthy of note.
We rate this book 4.3/5.
EDITOR’s Note: This article was first published in April 2021. It was updated on December 29, 2021.
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