AI Talk: “The Code Breaker” book review

April 2, 2021 / By V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the future of Human Race by Walter Isaacson

I came across this book recommendation on Amazon last weekend. I bought both the audio and kindle version and dived in. It was quite a page turner. I didn’t really expect a biographical science book to be that interesting, but it was. It is a fascinating look at phenomenal advances in gene editing.

The central character of the book is Jennifer Doudna, but the book’s biographical sketches cover a wide range of other scientists, humanizing them and capturing their drive and emotions as they strive to advance science. One scientist profiled is James Watson (discoverer of the double helix along with Francis Crick), and his influence in this community of scientists is traced. Watson turns out to be a bit of controversial figure with genius mixed in with unpalatable opinions on race.

French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier and American scientist Jennifer Doudna won the 2020 Nobel prize in Chemistry for their discovery of nature’s ability to fight viruses, which launched the gene-editing revolution. They were the first female pair to win the Noble Prize. Central to their discovery is explaining the role of CRISPR—a clever acronym for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.” All of the various scientists involved in this saga are featured in this book with a short biographical sketch. First there is the discovery of repeated DNA sequences which inspired the CRISPR acronym. Then the realization that interspersed with these repeated sequences are DNA snippets which match the viruses that attack the cell—essentially memorizing which virus attacked it. The cell’s defense mechanism kicks in when the virus invades the cell again by recognizing the DNA-sequence and snipping (i.e., destroying) it. Exactly how this works in nature is what Charpentier and Doudna (and all their PhD students and postdocs) discovered through pain staking experiments and deep cross-country collaboration. They figured out the role of what is dubbed tracrRNA and a series of CRISPR-associated enzymes (Cas). Charpentier and Doudna took this discovery and made it into a gene-editing tool – with the ability to identify, cut and replace any gene sequence. The Noble committee called it the “genetic scissors.”  In one short decade from early 2000s to 2012, the world had discovered and decoded the magic of CRISPR.

Then the race was on to translate these discoveries into practical applications. Here the book portrays the intense competition happening in two orbits—one involving Doudna and her University of Berkley campus, the other involving Feng Zhang and Broad Institute. These two teams are prolific in their efforts to advance CRISPR-related science and applications. They are also engaged in a bitter patent battle on CRISPR gene-editing capabilities which continues to this day.

Another soul-searching theme in the book is the ethics of gene-editing. Correcting defective genes that cause diseases like Huntington’s disease and sickle-cell anemia is certainly good, but what about editing genes in vitro to enhance the baby’s height or cognitive skills? Do we want to play God? These questions are no longer in the theoretical realm. In 2018, a Chinese scientist edited embryos to make them resistant to HIV and twin girls were born from that experiment. A huge furor ensued. He is currently serving a prison sentence in China for violating their ethics guidelines.

The pandemic unleashed another round of innovations. Both the Berkley team and Broad Institute developed a range of diagnostic tests to essentially detect the RNA of the SARS-CoV2 virus. This time, competitors became collaborators. Every scientist pitched in for the good of humanity and took the profit motive out of the equation. A very good thing. They also appear to be masters in coining clever acronyms! Here is a sampling: SHERLOCK, CARVER, DETECTR and STOP.

Certainly, a good use of this technology is to detect viruses such as SARS-CoV2. Vaccines such as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use the messenger-RNA (mRNA) technology underlying all the advances discussed in this book. Even better than vaccines is the idea of using gene-editing technology to replicate what our cells do, i.e., memorize the virus DNA sequence inside the CRISPR segments and mimic their natural ability to fight such viruses!

The last decade may be dubbed the era of deep learning and AI revolution. It has spawned countless applications and continues to accelerate new innovation. However, this decade could very well be the decade when gene-editing takes off.  It could lead to numerous innovations in disease detection and cures. Home based testing of pretty much any disease or condition is a possibility. This book has opened my eyes to the possibilities of gene editing. Just like in AI, ethics will play an important role, but the promise appears to be limitless.

Read The New York Times review of the book here.

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V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD, is Director of Research for 3M M*Modal and is an AI Evangelist with four decades of experience in AI and Computer Science research.

Listen to Juggy Jagannathan discuss AI on the ACDIS podcast.