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Walter Isaacson’s Perspective
Walter Isaacson is a historian, journalist, and a proclaimed biographer. He is currently a Professor of History at Tulane and an advisory partner at the financial company Perella Weinberg. His former positions include CEO of the Aspen Institute. You may also come across his work as a chairman of CNN and the editor of TIME magazine.
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, DaVinci, as well as a co-creator of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made.
The Code Breaker is a fascinating ode to scientists who made remarkable discoveries about our genome. It primarily focuses on Jennifer Doudna, who received the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry along with her colleague microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier. Although the Nobel-prize winning gene-editing pioneer is the central figure of this publication, Isaacson offers to take a closer look at other scientists, their discoveries, and how they are able to change our lives. According to Isaacson and the scientific community as a whole, Doudna’s findings promise to cure a multitude of life-threatening illnesses.
StoryShot #1: The Double Helix
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 the sixth grade, she understood that she wanted to connect her life with studying 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 in a way.
The Double Helix was talking about people who tried to unravel the ultimate mysteries of human life. The adventure to untangle our DNA was strewn with fascinating characters, fruitful partnerships, and contention. The book became an inspiration for little Jennifer to become a scientist. When she was 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
CRISPR (a handy acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is the remarkable discovery that Doudna and her colleagues made. It is a system bacteria have been using for millennia to combat viruses. When a virus attacks bacteria, they remember a portion of its code. If the virus comes back later, the bacteria are able to utilize the knowledge of its code to tackle the virus. This mechanism is essential for living organisms in order to develop immunity to viruses they faced before. This is exactly what we needed to defeat COVID-19 and many future pandemics. In fact, instead of simply giving us immunity, CRISPR is capable of destroying the virus. This means biotechnology will allow us not only to combat new viruses but also 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 as a cure for cancer and a number of genetic diseases, including sickle cell anemia. On top of that, CRISPR boasts 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 stirred a massive negative response and led to their creator’s imprisonment.
StoryShot #3: Team Work
The author’s focus on Doudna’s contribution to CRISP’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 the knowledge they brought helped to build an atomic bomb. The same with CRISPR and other discoveries in chemistry and biotechnology. By and large, it is a product of collaboration, and most of those who took part in it remained in the shadow, at least from the public standpoint.
StoryShot #4: The BioTech Revolution
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 clearly been the most influential sector over the last three or four decades. That said, the author believes that the future is biotechnology. Instead of merely coding microchips, it will be possible to code our own DNA or code a vaccine to fight pandemics like Coronavirus.
Technology revolution brings lots of investment to laboratories and institutes. At the same time, many aspiring individuals work from their own garages, just like Mark Zuckerberg did with Facebook. While the Internet era spawned cyber hackers, the new achievements in biotechnology are able to give rise 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 home. The most notable example of this is Josiah Zayner. Despite the risks, Isaacson believes that 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, among these amateur scientists may actually give us the biotech version of Steve Jobs.
There is also a fantastic opportunity for companies within this area. Boston, Massachusetts has the most research hospitals per capita of any place in the world. This makes it no surprise that Kendall Square in Cambridge is becoming the new Silicon Valley.
StoryShot #5: Patent Wars
Doudna and her team are not unique in their endeavors to find genome editing solutions. Competitive laboratories also have a lot to offer. While competition is the mother of progress, it caused a major patent battle. In the red corner of the patent boxing match is Jennifer Doudna and her teammates from the University of California. In the blue corner, Feng Zhang & Co. from the Broad Institute, Boston.
It’s not hard to see that at stake is the ownership of one of the most promising technologies of the future. The market of 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 of brilliant minds and mighty corporations behind them is bristling with accusations of fraud, betrayal, and moral conduct violation. It’s a drama that evolves at the ethical, legal, and financial levels. Through interviews with eminent biotech personalities, you can get an insight into the direction things are going.
StoryShot #6: Ethical Dillemmas
Tweaking our genome opens up endless vistas to improve human health and well-being. If we could cure schizophrenia or AIDS by simply changing a few things in our code, wouldn’t we seize this opportunity?
The 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 to never encounter. CRISPR seems like a godsend to smooth out our imperfections, but the devil, as always, is in the details. What if our imperfections will be gone with something vital to our humanity? What if we lose our compassion, sympathy, 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 still remain a topical issue. Isaacson proceeds to talk 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 are going to face another one – is it OK to ‘craft’ designer babies? It is likely that the information our genes carry gives us the diversity we need. If you delete or tweak something in our code, there is a chance we lose this diversity. Moreover, peculiarities in our code can be villains and heroes at the same time. Scientists established that the code that is the root cause of sickle cell anemia actually helps fight malaria. Could it be that removing something bad would cause even greater problems? Where are the boundaries between the essential need and abuse, and how not to cross it? The book attempts, if not to give answers to these questions, but at least to offer us food for thought.
StoryShot #7: The Issues of Selectivity
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, and even more. Does this mean that only the rich will be able to 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 serious diseases, this does not mean that the carriers themselves will want to introduce their lives to changes. 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 is easy to see why so many people gracefully embraced their imperfections. At the end of the day, 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: CRISPR to Tackle COVID
CRISPR could become our main weapon in the fight against the most pressing issue – the Coronavirus pandemic. Isaacson took the time to explain how the virus operates and how it managed to spread to pandemic proportions. Labs are already working on the cutting-edge mRNA vaccine built upon tweaking the genes of the Coronavirus. Many people are concerned that the vaccine could change their genes, too. The Code Breaker tries to answer their burning questions regarding the virus and the ways to defeat it.
StoryShot #9: Anti-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 the 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 Review, Analysis, and Criticism of Code Breaker
The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson is a fascinating read about gene-editing breakthroughs 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 the 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.
The book is a bit too wide in scope and has some bias in favor of American scientists. Because of the area of the study the book covers is fast-growing, the book is out of date in some areas already.
We rate this book 4.5/5.
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