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The Code Breaker Jennifer Doudna Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race Hardcover – 17 March 2021
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About the Author
- Publisher : Simon & Schuster Australia (17 March 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 560 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1760859893
- ISBN-13 : 978-1760859893
- Dimensions : 16 x 4.8 x 24.4 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 12,813 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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This book is 481 pages long but is an easy and exhilarating book written by an experienced hand. Issacson, however, openly declares that he tells the story primarily from Jennifer Doudna’s point of view. He has done his best to be an impartial reporter and recorder of the story, yet it is obvious, and perhaps unavoidable, that some characters are cast in poorer light against Doudna, who Issacson shines the light of sainthood upon.
Before the race to discover how CRISPR might be used on human genes, they first have to discover CRISPR – the acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. As it appears, scientific discoveries are made a step at a time, almost always by different scientists. The Japanese Yoshizumi Ishino was the first to discover the repeat structures in a bacteria. It was Francisco Mojica who realised what these do, and it was he who came up with the name CRSPR. Then came Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.
In brief, they discovered how bacteria defend themselves against their old enemy, the virus. The bacteria cut up some of the DNA from the virus and then implant them on themselves so that they can identify the invading virus when they attacked again.
The story continues to the crucial race to discover how exactly the bacteria cut up the virus DNA. That was main work of Doudna and Charpentier. They discovered the process through the RNA and how the TRACR RNA helps identity then guide the bacteria’s protein enzyme to the target. All that is exciting, yet the book’s attraction lies in many other aspects.
We see how fame and money (the scientists get millions of dollars from prizes) change or perhaps reveal the dark side of even the seemingly nicest of people. We see how quiet, unassuming, dedicated scientists turn to ego-sensitive, prize-grabbing people. We may also question the way the patent system works. Reading between the lines of this book (remember, Isaacsson is a little beholden to Doudna for the backbone of his story) we might get a slightly different take.
Ethical issues involve not only the big question as to whether we should allow genetic editing in humans, but also the subsidiary question, of when we are ready for it. Thus enters the Chinese scientist He Jiankui who used CRISPR to edit the genes of a pair of twins so that they are genetically resistant to the HIV virus. Yet He Jiankui created an uproar in the West, and the worldwide outrage led to him being found guilty of conducting experiments without official approval and was sentenced to three years jail. He rushed ahead before the all-clear signal.
But now, with the COVID pandemic, scientists are open to using gene editing as an answer. Furthermore, even Doudna is working on other diseases that can be cured. They include the sickle cell disease, Alzheimer’s, and also cancer. There are also problems that the present system has not yet addressed – gene-editing as a medical magic wand seems destined to be available only for the rich.
We also learn from this book that the US military, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) was so very much interested in gene technology in the last six years or so that it invested US$65m into research involving CRISPR and genetic engineering specifically for military purposes. Doudna is in one of the seven teams involved with DARPA funded research.
The moral and ethical issues are enough to keep one thinking long after the last page is turned. One big question is how different are the modern-day eugenics different from the eugenics of the early 20th century?
Walter Isaacson includes mini bios for many of the scientists included in Doudna’s story and there are quite a few. At first, I was frustrated by all the incremental information - get on with it, already! As his worked progressed, peeling the onion of her life’s story, I see the value of understanding the motivation for these scientists; not all are created equally. Many of the details of Doudna’s life are glossed over so don’t expect a Hollywood style biography. Details are given as they relate to people and events of science, her personal life is not.
Doudna is an interesting woman due to the fact that she is really quite “normal” in her brilliance for bio chemistry. I was struck by her genuine affection for her co-workers that’s evidenced in the included photos as well as some of the lengths she went to helping her competition. She states that money is not her motivation but “publish or perish” is ingrained in most academics and even that seems to be under developed in Jennifer. THAT will become an issue...
Parts of this formidable volume read like a thriller. There’s intrigue, court battles, and friends with misunderstandings. Part Seven consists of 5 chapters that discuss the issues of ethics as relates to DNA and changing the structure of life, ordering the structure of life. Who has the right? Who controls the rights? Is it right at all? These are supremely serious questions that should be considered be every adult.
It would be helpful to have some science background when reading this book, but it’s not impossible without it. There are excellent footnotes to assist and if you get the Kindle version, they are interactive, which makes look ups SO much easier! Otherwise, this is definitely a worthy read. It’s very well written, challenging and up to the minute with information on the science of biochemistry and gene editing. The ethical issues should have people talking for a good, long time. The medical manifestations should have people living a healthy, long time. God Bless Us, Everyone📚
There is a key difference between this book and Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I did not learn anything new from the latter as I was aware of most of the key events in the life of Jobs and in the history of Apple; however the insights that he provided into Jobs’ personality and the behind-the-scenes happenings at Apple made it an extremely interesting read. The Code Breaker, on the other hand, was extremely informative given my limited knowledge of gene editing; however, in its quest for being informative, the book ends up being somewhat tedious.
Doudna has led an extremely laudable professional life. However, her personal life has been largely commonplace, and while Isaacson tries his hardest to create a sense of excitement around it, he fails to do so. He focuses all his efforts on this front in the third part of the book — Gene Editing — where he chronicles the intense rivalry between Feng Zhang and Doudna, tracing their race to get credit, important prizes and patents. But this attempt falls short.
The most interesting part of the book for me was the section where Isaacson explores the moral or ethical issues around gene-editing. This is best exemplified by the question, “would it be wrong to do so or would it be wrong not to do so”. Isaacson discusses where boundary lines should be drawn — somatic editing versus germline editing (the latter is hereditary), the use for treatment of diseases versus for enhancement of human characteristics, the types of diseases that should be edited out, disadvantages that are disabling versus those that are simply so because of societal constructs (such as homosexuality) and finally whether the individual or the community should control this. From this part onwards, the book is less about Doudna and more about the science.
The book ends on an optimistic note, while discussing the Covid-19 disease and the race to find a vaccine, on how reprogrammable RNA vaccines could pave a way for finding faster cures to diseases and pandemics in the future.
Pros: Helps understand the science of biogenetics, interesting debate on the ethical aspects
Cons: Drags in parts
However, once finding the correct location for editing, all Cas9 can do by itself is cutting the DNA double helix at this location. Nevertheless, cutting alone usually disrupts the target gene by a mechanism called nonhomologous end joining. Human does possess another DNA repair pathway called HDR, which can fix the gene if a DNA template is nearby. Unfortunately, the latter one only works in the dividing cells and its editing efficiency is often miserably low, especially when editing in vivo.
For all the above reasons, CRISPR-Cas9 needs to pair with other editing modules to complete the other half of the job, the actual editing, to fully unlock its potential. This is where the base editor or prime editor comes into the scene. Invented by Harvard Chemist David Liu and his postdocs, both base editor and prime editor can offer much higher "editing" efficiency than HDR. And both editors are widely adopted and hailed by the gene-editing labs across the globe since their debut in 2016 and 2019 respectively.
As such, it is a major disappointment for this book that Walter Isaacson failed to dedicate at least one complete chapter to highlight base/prime editor and have an interview with David Liu to discuss his transformational work.