A Scientific Detective Tale With Consequences for the Future of Our Species

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With completion of the Human Genome Project, medicine hit a turning point that enabled scientists to approach genetic diseases like cancer with new tools such as disruptive technologies like CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene editing. Progress in this novel technology was so swift that ethical and safety issues have scrambled to keep pace; this was highlighted in 2019 when Chinese researcher He Jiankui edited the genes of two human embryos that were brought to term.


Title:The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Author: Walter Isaacson

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date: March 2021

Price: $35.00, hardcover, 560 pages

He was found guilty of forging ethical review documents and misleading doctors into unknowingly implanting gene-edited embryos into two women. With great knowledge comes great temptation, which is part of the backdrop for the new book The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.

The author, Walther Isaacson, is an award-winning biographer of Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Henry Kissinger, and others. In The Code Breaker, he devotes his considerable talent to Jennifer Doudna, PhD, who shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, for the development of a method for genome editing. Like all major scientific breakthroughs, the road to CRISPR is strewn with a slew of contributors, dating back to the Spanish researcher Francisco Mojica, reportedly the first scientist to characterize CRISPR in 1993. However, the author chose his protagonist wisely, as Dr. Doudna is a superstar in the field of gene editing, plus she has a great life story to add dramatic tension to the narrative.

As one would expect, The Code Breaker is a big book, organized into 9 parts and 56 short chapters, replete with photographs and charts. Mr. Isaacson is a thorough researcher and does a great job describing an intensely complicated process in which humans can program heredity. No easy task. Those with a basic knowledge of college-level biology will have a more readable experience, but still, all lovers of a good science yarn will enjoy the ride.

Motivated by The Double Helix

To be sure, the story of CRISPR is tortuous, zigzagging from secret labs in Japan to a yogurt factory in Wisconsin. Mr. Isaacson spent considerable time introducing readers to Dr. Doudna, who grew up in Hilo, an old town in a volcano-studded section of the Big Island of Hawaii. Her childhood was somewhat challenged because her blue eyes and blonde hair made her stick out among the Native Hawaiians, who referred to her as a “haole,” a derogatory term for non-natives.

“I was really, really alone and isolated at school. In fact, in the third grade, I was so ostracized that I developed digestive problems I later realized were stress related. Kids would tease me every day,” recalled Dr. Doudna.

However, like many who have felt like an outsider, she turned angst and loneliness into motivation for achievement. Her story about her long journey to CRISPR had several seminal points, one of which was a paperback copy of James Watson’s The Double Helix, which her father left on her bed when she was in sixth grade. She read it cover to cover, and it sparked an intense line of inquiry about science and life.

“I’ve always loved mystery stories,” Dr. Doudna shared. “It explains my fascination with science, which is humanity’s attempt to understand the longest-running mystery we know: the origin and function of the natural world and our place in it.”

Battle Over a Patent

Mr. Isaacson also discusses predecessors in the field of genomics such as Craig Venter, PhD, and Francis Collins, MD, PhD, whose work on the Human Genome Project laid much of the groundwork for Dr. Doudna et al. The book begins to gallop along once the reader joins the race for CRISPR. A joint team, led by Dr. Charpentier in Europe and Dr. Doudna at the University of California at Berkeley, eventually edited bacterial DNA with CRISPR and received patents for their work.

As readers will come to recognize, many scientists searching to develop new technologies have sharp elbows and huge egos, which adds to the fun. Scientific animus takes front stage when a research team at the Broad Institute first edited human cells, winning a far more lucrative patent. Dr. Doudna took the Broad Institute team to federal court. Although the Broad Institute fended off the lawsuit, the battle to control the fortunes of CRISPR continues.

Superstar and Ethics

If there is a single flaw in this worthwhile book, it is the author’s near-singular fascination with Dr. Doudna herself and the lengthy exposition about her struggle with the Broad Institute over patent rights. Science, as readers of The ASCO Post well know, is highly collaborative, and CRISPR was not Dr. -Doudna’s discovery alone. To that end, the author could have created a more inclusive tapestry of individuals who contributed to this groundbreaking development. That said, in the case for equity and inclusiveness, the Nobel Prize committee honored both Drs. Charpentier and Doudna, the first time in its history that two women alone split the Nobel Prize.

Ethical concerns have plagued the development of technologies that seek to engineer so-called designer babies. Mr. Isaacson does a fine job addressing the fine points of genetic editing, such as giving parents the option to edit out traits that might later prove harmful to their children. Such issues are thorny and will continue to provoke heated debate in the future. Until then, The Code Breaker gives us a good place to begin.

Promising Developments Ahead

So, what does this elegant technology mean for humanity? CRISPR has enabled a simple and affordable way to edit DNA, completely altering the face of genome engineering. The applications are limitless. Researchers are currently working on new ways to cure diseases such as cancer, blindness, and Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, since CRISPR began as a virus-fighting tool, using it to make our bodies resistant to COVID-19 is not so far-fetched.

The Code Breaker is a big bite to tackle, and, like most tomes, it could have used a bit more aggressive editing. However, that’s a small gripe for such a valuable book, which is highly recommended for readers of The ASCO Post