Jennifer Doudna & Samuel Sternberg ”A Crack In Creation”

While the blog is on a relaxed summer schedule, you can read my book review of Jennifer Doudna’s and Samuel Sternberg’s CRISPR-related autobiography and discussion of the future of genome editing in University of Edinburgh’s Science Magazine EUSci issue #24.

The book is called A Crack in Creation, subtitled The New Power to Control Evolution, or depending on edition, Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution. There are a couple of dramatic titles for you. The book starts out similarly dramatic, with Jennifer Doudna dreaming of a beach in Hawaii, where she comes from, imagining a wave rising from the ocean to crash down on her. The wave is CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing, the technological force of nature that Doudna and colleagues have let loose on the world.

I like the book, talk about some notable omissions, and take issue with the bombastic and inaccurate title(s). Read the rest here.

Links

Pivotal CRISPR patent battle won by Broad Institute. Nature News. 2018.

Sharon Begley & Andrew Joseph. The CRISPR shocker: How genome-editing scientist He Jiankui rose from obscurity to stun the world. Stat News. 2018.

A Crack in Creation. The book’s website.

How not to respond to CRISPR babies

In December, after He Jiankui’s alleged experiment with human genome-editing, a Nature editorial said:

It has not yet been independently confirmed that the Chinese genome-editing researcher He Jiankui altered the DNA of embryos using a gene-editing technique and then implanted them in a woman, as he claims. Such a step would be significant and controversial because it would make a permanent change to the germ line that could be passed on to future generations. (This distinguishes germline editing from the use of gene-editing tools as therapies that correct genetic alterations in somatic cells in blood and other tissues.)

I think that this passage, like a lot of other discourse among scientists on this topic, fails to acknowledge, or at least emphasise, the real damage in this case.

When we insist on the germline–soma distinction as The Barrier for genome editing, and crossing The Barrier as the primary problem, we prioritise The Barrier over the actual people involved. The damage is not primarily to ‘the genome’, ‘the gene pool’, or ‘future generations’, but to the children born of the procedure, and their parents. The genome, on the other hand, is fine. It’s being fuzzed by random mutation every generation anyways.

Imagine this was instead a somatic gene ‘therapy’ experiment, with similarly vague potential benefits against similarly unknown and unchecked potential harms. Would it be fine? Of course not. It might be slightly less bad, because the women wouldn’t have to worry that their children would inherit the potential complications. That the variants are (may be) heritable is not unimportant, but it shouldn’t be the main concern.