Saturday, September 23, 2023

‘The Code Breaker’ Is The Crispr Column You Must Read

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So you start writing about Jennifer Doudna and the next thing you know, she wins the Nobel Prize. Coincidence?

Despite what people think of rigged electoral systems, I don’t have the ability to hack the Swedish Academy’s voting process. I thought it was too early for Crispr. I mean, it had only been eight years since Doudna and Charpentier’s historical diary. But on the morning the Nobel Prize in chemistry was due to be announced, I always set the alarm at 4 a.m. so I could listen to the live stream. And when I heard the announcement, I screamed. Funny thing is that Doudna slept during the Stockholm phone calls. When I spoke to her a few hours later, she told me that she only learned of her victory after the fact, thanks to a reporter calling her for comment.

That moment, in many ways, represented the culmination of a years-long clash over who deserves credit for transforming Crispr from a biological curiosity into one of the most powerful technologies ever invented. What was it like trying to capture this?

Everyone I spoke to was very generous. Feng Zhang, who is the main competitor for patents and awards, is one of the most charming, open and interesting people you will ever meet. I was a little worried when I met him, because I was writing about people who had been his rivals, but he couldn’t have been nicer.

And so I think access has helped me show that science is a real human endeavor that often involves a lot of competition – for patents, for awards, and for recognition. Competition is a good thing. It stimulates us. This was the case with the competition between Intel and Texas Instruments in the development of the microchip. And that was true with Crispr. But what’s also true is that when Covid hit, all of these scientists put the patent race aside and turned their attention to the fight against the coronavirus and quickly put their findings into the public domain for anyone involved in this fight to use.

So I hope this book shows the mix of competition and cooperation that is at the heart of science. And the fact that even though they are real humans with egos and ambitions, they – more than most people – realize, correctly, that they are part of a noble enterprise that has a higher purpose. I hope everyone in the book comes across as a hero in their own way, because they are.

You were reporting this book when something seismic happened in the world of Crispr. In 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui revealed he had not only edited human embryos but started pregnancies with them, leading to the birth of twin daughters. How did this affect the trajectory of the story you wanted to tell?

It really became a pivotal turning point in the narrative. Because now all of these scientists were forced to grapple with the moral implications of what they had helped to create. But things changed again when the coronavirus hit. I ended up working on the book for another year to watch players tackle this pandemic. And that actually changed my own thinking about Crispr.

How? ‘Or’ What?

I think I sometimes felt a visceral resistance to the idea that we could modify the human genome, especially in a hereditary way. But that has changed for both me and Doudna as we have met more and more people who are themselves afflicted with horrible genetic problems, or who have children suffering from them. And when our species was criticized by a deadly virus, it made me more open to the idea that we should use whatever talents we have to thrive and be healthy. So I’m now even more open to gene editing done for medical purposes, whether it’s sickle cell disease, Huntington’s disease, or Tay-Sachs disease, or even increasing our resistance to viruses and other pathogens and cancer.


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