Author, journalist, and academic Walter Isaacson and WBEZ’s chief content officer Steve Edwards were brought together virtually to speak to the Chicago Humanities Festival about Isaacson’s new biography The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, but they started off with a discussion of vaccines. More specifically, the conversation began as Isaacson explained the ways in which Doudna’s research into RNA, and the gene-editing technique she pioneered, CRISPR, made the RNA-based COVID-19 vaccinations from Moderna and Pfizer possible.
The RNA-based vaccinations provided a strong introduction to Isaacson and Edwards’ conversation. Isaacson’s inherent optimism, and infectious enthusiasm for his subject, shone through, setting the stage for a fast-paced conversation about the ways in which gene editing may change the world—and the ways in which it has changed our world already.
Doudna and her research partner Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for their work on the CRISPR gene-editing technology. The technology, Isaacson told us, has already cured sickle cell anemia in more than one person, and has the potential to cure many more genetic conditions, such as Huntington’s or Tay Sachs Disease. CRISPR’s incredible potential led into a discussion of the ethics of human gene editing. Throughout the dialog, Isaacson stressed the need to come to CRISPR—and all other scientific endeavors—with a genuinely open mind, and to accept that lines may change and ethical considerations may differ as we move onward with increasing availability of biotechnology such as CRISPR.
To Isaacson, editing heritable genes, thus ensuring that the next generation will not have, for example, sickle cell anemia or Tay Sachs, is an ethical line too far. Such editing would enable humanity to fundamentally alter itself, and thus the course of evolution as well. But he cautions that this line may move as we learn more.
Isaacson believes that gene editing is one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of our modern era. He argues for an international consensus, both scientific and regulatory, on the ways in which it can and should be used. Similarly, he notes the dangers of a world in which the wealthy are able to edit their future children’s genes, creating healthier, stronger kids, while the poor are unable to afford the technology.
Isaacson remains optimistic about the possibilities of CRISPR and of biotechnology more generally. The revolution is here and already changing the world.