Justice prevails in science
Reviewed in the United States on 2 June 2021
A short BOOK REPORT by Ron Housley
By the time my own formal education hit its peak, I had taken courses in microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, embryology — Watson and Crick were already famous, but nothing even vaguely hinting at some future discovery of CRISPR was on anybody’s drawing board.
For most of us out here in our own little worlds, the explosion of biotech was somewhat on the radar; we knew, for instance, that diabetic patients no longer needed insulin made from animals, because it had been “genetically engineered” in the lab. But what we did not know was that it would soon be discovered that many bacteria had clustered regularly interspaced small palindromic repeats (CRISPR) in their DNA sequences.
I was drawn to several of Walter Isaacson’s prior books — which were engaging accounts of brilliant minds behind the scenes of monumental new, game-changing developments. Here we go again: Jennifer Doudna, 2020 Nobel Laureate, is the brilliant mind; the game-changing developments threaten to make the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines look like child’s play by comparison.
I marked my copy of “The Code Breaker” with a special symbol every time my eyes watered up with tears of admiration at the portrait of brilliance, bravery and courage. Stories like this peppered with extraordinary drive and relentless commitment to truth; with heroic courage to venture down life’s path with focused purpose; with a burning drive kept alive in spite of life’s mandatory detours — these are the types of inspiration that reinforce the conviction that we live in a knowable world, a world which is open to discovery, a world where joy is possible to those who seek it.
Just the knowledge that a Jennifer Doudna is possible in our world is inspirational and uplifting; it replenishes lost hope for any of us who might be tempted to become depressed at how things are going in the world.
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I don’t ordinarily think of a biography, or any non-fiction work, as a “page turner;” but The Code Breaker was a page-turner. Part of the experience was the book being “broken up” into a gazillion short chapters; I was instantly attracted to that, perhaps just a reaction to my unhappily short attention span. But the sequencing of chapters allowed for an injection of all those mini-accomplishments followed by immediately “getting on with it” to find out what would be revealed next.
I more or less knew where the story was headed, since Jennifer Doudna had become famous; and it was the kind of famous that attracts me the most: famous for a legitimate and worthwhile accomplishment, the result of a lifetime of intense intellectual focus and persistence. It’s all in the vein of Napoleon Hill’s dictate that success comes from personal alignment with a “definiteness of purpose.” Doudna certainly had the purpose, and she had the focus that brought spectacular attainment of her purpose.
Along the way was the story of who would get credit for what; who would get prizes along the way; and who would get the grandest prize of all. The story showed us how patent rights can almost gain more importance than the scientific discoveries themselves.
My own reaction to patents has been “Thank God for patents,” ever since I became aware of the penicillin story where Alexander Fleming’s discovery languished for decades — because he refused to apply for a patent. Fleming supposedly felt that his discovery was too important to keep it from the world; but he didn’t realize that without a patent in place, it would be kept from the world for a long time.
Only many years later when someone took out a patent on a particular process to manufacture penicillin, did this life-saving bio-product move onto the world stage to save millions of lives. Nobody was going to invest a fortune, even to save millions of lives, if the fortune was not to be protected.
And so it was with CRISPR technology: nothing much would happen to benefit millions of people without the mechanism to recoup the enormous investment that would be necessary up front. As long as intellectual property could be identified and protected, then progress could move forward; as long as the patent system remained intact, progress would remain in mankind’s future. (Suspend patents and the stage is set for stagnation.)
So, the patent office set the stage for a CRISPR explosion to come to the aid of all mankind.
BATTLE LINES BEING DRAWN
CRISPR has resulted in something of an ethics war. What we seem to have is two conflicting armies: (a)one promoting the moral imperative to edit the genome if that would eliminate catastrophic human disease vs. (b)one promoting the moral imperative to somehow outlaw genome editing because worldwide terrorist catastrophe could result. Now what?
Decades ago there was an argument against nuclear energy because dangerous waste would threaten mankind; that was before they had breeder reactors that could use the waste itself as fuel. Today there is an argument against gene editing because of the danger of mass human destruction in the hands of terrorists; that may have been before CRISPR blockers are perfected(?).
Isaacson’s book spends a fair amount of time looking at the preposterous objection that gene editing amounts to “playing God” — as though only random DNA mutations or God Himself have the moral authority to make gene changes.
But babies are born every day with mutations, as life copies itself but not always perfectly; the issue is whether the copy mistakes (mutations) will be random or whether they can be purposeful. “If we could safely edit genes to make our children less susceptible to HIV or coronaviruses, would it be wrong to do so? Or would it be wrong NOT to do so?” (p. 335)
When I hear the “playing God” objection, it always makes me wonder how it can so easily be over-looked that the entire purpose of morality in the first place is to provide us with a code of values to use in achieving life-advancing values.
The section discussing the “ethics” of gene editing gets down to the question of “the common good,” as if there were such a thing. In all of my prior encounters with the notion of “the common good,” the question has always reduced to the common good of some individuals at the expense of the common good of other individuals. I have yet to see a satisfactory discussion of “the common good” as some moral yardstick; it’s always a bludgeon rather than a measuring stick. The call to justify any action, such as regulating gene editing, based on “the common good” is always a warning alarm: somebody’s rights are on the chopping block, somewhere.
The one concern that stands out for me in the discussion comes from our understanding “….that genes may play multiple roles and have evolutionary reasons for existing” (p. 343). For instance, the book pointed out, the gene causing sickle cell anemia also causes resistance to malaria; but how many other genes is the sickle cell gene connected with, whose functions would be altered with one supposedly isolated edit? I will be following developments with heightened interest; and I’ll be always concerned about what would happen if some vital protein were mistakenly edited out of the human genome forever, or something like that.
When Jennifer Doudna was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, late in 2020, Isaacson had been working on his book for a long time — for years. Just as Steve Jobs’ death enhanced sales of his book on Steve Jobs, so also will Doudna’s Prize have a huge impact on the sales of The Code Breaker. I may very well have never picked this book up but for the publicity about CRISPR and the biggest prize in science.
Since the awarding of the Nobel Prize, Isaacson and Doudna have been all over the media: 60 Minutes, C-SPAN, TED-talks, YouTube interviews and lectures, and on and on. The whole thing became a media “happening.” But at the same time, we all got to enjoy the justice of the Nobel award, the first time ever that two women were awarded the Prize.
It was a good story, from Jennifer Doudna’s guidance counselor telling her not to go into chemistry because “girls don’t do science,” to the very pinnacle of science achievement! What’s not to like and admire about Jennifer Doudna?!
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