Health Tech Podcast

‘The Code Breaker’ writer Walter Isaacson on the genetic revolution, regional hubs and moral strains

Walter Isaacson tried CRISPR gene editing as he worked on his new book, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race. (Photo courtesy Walter Isaacson.)

Walter Isaacson has studied and written extensively about the physics and technology revolutions as the biographer of such figures as Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. But after writing his latest book, he is convinced there’s a far more momentous revolution in the works.

“The next few decades are going to be the era of biotech,” he said in a GeekWire podcast conversation about his new book, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race. “We’ll be able to do totally amazing things that will not only make us healthier but in some ways will transform our species. So as much as I love the digital revolution, I think this is the big one.”

The book explores the history and implications of gene editing through the stories of scientists and other key figures in the field. The central character is Jennifer Doudna, the UC Berkeley biochemist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020 with French geneticist Emmanuelle Charpentier for their discoveries and work in CRISPR gene editing.

Isaacson is a professor of history at Tulane who was previously CEO of The Aspen Institute, chair of CNN and editor of Time. 

Listen to Isaacson discuss the book on this episode of the GeekWire Health Tech Podcast, or subscribe in any podcast app. Keep reading for highlights. 

Navigating the slippery slope of genetic editing: “At first I flinched at the notion of genetic editing. It’s playing God or it’s like Prometheus snatching fire from the gods,” Isaacson said.

But his interviews and research for the book made him more open to the positive implications of gene editing, if done carefully with safeguards against unintended consequences. In terms of ethical lines, he says, genetic editing should designed to benefit all of society in some form. He adds that it’s important to distinguish between genetic editing that helps one person vs. germline editing that creates inherited traits.

Slopes become less slippery if you do it cautiously, step by step,” he said.

Doudna’s story: “The Code Breaker” traces Doudna’s life, starting with her childhood  growing up in Hawaii and being inspired by The Double Helix by DNA pioneer James Watson, which her dad brought home and left for her to read. She ignored the guidance counselor who told her that girls don’t become scientists.

Isaacson’s book goes on to recount the race to patent and commercialize gene editing breakthroughs. It also explores Doudna’s latest work with her team, applying their research and RNA expertise to the COVID-19 pandemic, and grappling with the ethical implications of gene editing.

“Years ago I met Jennifer Doudna, interviewed her for various things, and I realized that her life story is a perfect narrative thread,” Isaacson said. While the book presents a colorful cast of characters, he said, “I’m a biographer; I like to do it through narrative and to do it through a person.”

Walter Isaacson in New Orleans’ French Quarter. (Photo courtesy Walter Isaacson.)

Common threads: Asked about the biggest shared trait among his biographical subjects such as Leonardo, Einstein, Jobs and Doudna, Isaacson said it’s curiosity about the mysteries of everyday things. “When you get curious, you look for the secrets of life, and life becomes a detective story for you.”

As he noted, this trait is also evident in Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whom Isaacson profiled in a shorter biography that was published as the introduction to a collection of Bezos’ writing.

This same kind of fundamental curiosity drives basic research, and helped lead to CRISPR gene editing. Scientists looked at the way bacteria defend themselves and create immunity, and used that to figure out how to unravel and splice the twin strands of DNA precisely to insert new genes. 

Life sciences hubs: At the risk of turning the profound into the parochial, I asked for Isaacson’s take on the role of regional hubs in the life sciences era. He called Seattle “incredibly well-positioned,” along with a few other parts of the country, given the presence of tech companies, computer scientists, the University of Washington, and other research and philanthropic institutions.

Advice for entrepreneurs: Isaacson said he sees the biggest opportunity in making health screening more accessible through home-based testing kits, and underlying platforms to enable them. “That will bring home biology the same way personal computer or the iPhone brought home digital technology,” he said.

What he hopes readers will take away from the book: “Well, first of all, that nature is beautiful. If you’re really curious about weird little things in nature, like how bacteria fight viruses, suddenly you find, well, maybe that’s useful, as well.”

“Step by step, we as a species discover the secret of how we work,” he said. “And now that secret has given us an amazing tool, which is not only the ability to understand the code of life, but, with a little bit of caution and I hope a lot of wisdom, rewrite the code of life when we need to.”

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race,” by Walter Isaacson, published by Simon & Schuster, was released March 9.

Editing and production support from Curt Milton.

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