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The Code Breaker

Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race
May 07, 2021
The book starts out strong, presenting Dr. Jennifer Doudna as growing up in Hilo HI and being given the Double Helix book by her dad, that inspired her career path. At some point the author’s admiration for Doudna becomes sycophantic, as he can no longer look at her objectively. For example, Doudna gets into a patent battle with Dr. Zhang, a rival scientist, and Isaacson advocates her position, basically denigrating Zhang’s accomplishment. He comes close to calling him a cheat and unethical. He also goes along with Doudna’s claim that Zhang’s findings were obvious for her work and therefore not deserving of a patent. But the courts have disagreed and Isaacson much later in the book admits that Zhang’s contribution of applying CRISPR to eukaryotic cells was a major accomplishment. Then the book’s trajectory gets changed for the last third due to COVID. The author desperately tries to present Doudna as a major figure to find a test and vaccine for COVID, but this just reflects his sycophancy. She participated in developing a test that was used locally and had no discernible input on the vaccine. Despite having described scores of scientists no mention is made of Dr. Kariko, whose work in RNA was fundamental for the development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. This is crazy when you consider that the author has included vignettes of dozens of scientists along the way. Isaacson keeps going back describing a rogue guy who wants to sell CRISPR supplies for DIY hobbyists, yet spends a few sentences on Dr. Liu, whose base replacement technique may well supplant CRISPR. Here is a good writer who simply got too close to a personality and lost sight of the scope of the science that has been the sum accomplishment of many talented scientists.