There are several books on CRISPR and genetic engineering published in 2020 and 2021. It is almost as if the writers were racing against each other the way the scientists from Berkeley (Doudna & Co) and Zhang (MIT/Harvard) raced against each other, first in determining how to use CRISPR to edit the human gene, and later, in the race to file the patent for the procedure.
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?