The Code Breaker – Book Review

I’ve been posting book reviews on the themes of egalitarianism, common good, and restorative justice since 2014. Click on the above “Book Reviews” heading to see all of them.

When I heard that biographer extraordinaire Walter Isaacson had written a new book focused on Messenger RNA (mRNA) and the race to produce a vaccine against Covid-19, I purchased The Code Breaker and bumped it up on my “to-read” list – a rare occurrence. Even though the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the first genetic vaccines produced using mRNA technology, they act like other vaccines to spur the body to produce specific antibodies. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses the older technology – harkening back to Edward Jenner’s eighteenth-century discovery of using the cowpox virus to inoculate his patients against deadly smallpox – introducing an inactivated version of the coronavirus to spur immunity. Isaacson forwards the claim of the dozens of scientists he writes about in this book that mRNA vaccines in the future will be used to help humans fight off an array of genetic diseases, from Alzheimer’s to certain types of cancers.

The book primarily follows the career path of American code-breaking biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who, along with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work together to create a CRISPR-based gene-editing tool.

CRISPR is the acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” and its technology is described by Isaacson as “based on a virus-fighting trick used by bacteria, which have been battling viruses for more than a billion years. In their DNA, bacteria develop clustered repeated sequences, known as CRISPRs, that can remember and then destroy viruses that attack them.” A CRISPR-editing tool, as instructed by mRNA, cuts up – as if a pair of scissors – targeted and unwanted genes in a strand of DNA.

Doudna and Charpentier are the sixth and seventh women to have won the Nobel for Chemistry of 184 total winners. Additionally, CRISPR-technique technology is employed to create mRNA vaccines. Messenger RNA instruct cells to produce Covid’s crowned “spike” protein, thus priming the recipient’s immune system to respond rapidly if the real coronavirus strikes. The injected mRNA dissolves after giving its instructions with no permanent (or even temporary) altering of DNA.

Scientists have known about the possibility of creating mRNA-based genetic vaccines since the late 1980s. But it wasn’t until 2012, when Doudna and Charpentier developed their CRISPR technology, that the door opened to the new era of genetic vaccines, giving humanity brand-new weapons in its survival-of-the-fittest campaign.

CRISPR has the potential to do all sorts of gene editing, from eliminating debilitating diseases like sickle cell and Huntington’s to enhancing human embryos with desired traits, such as eye, hair, and skin color, muscular build and height. Isaacson quotes Russian President Vladimir Putin touting the potential of CRISPR for human enhancements from a 2017 youth festival speech: “This may be a mathematical genius, an outstanding musician, but this can also be a soldier, a person who can fight without fear or compassion, mercy or pain.”

The ethical implications of CRISPR run deep.

Genetic control: Is it a new eugenics – a type of selective breeding to create higher quality humans? Could we eradicate not only sickle cell, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases, but also breast and ovarian cancers related to the BRCA gene? Would it be ethical NOT to eradicate certain genetic diseases? Will Putin (or his clone) one day have his heartless and robotic soldiers? Will the rich order designer babies? Who decides? Inequality is a huge issue in today’s world made up of humans produced by the genetic lottery. Severe inequality could become DNA-ingrained if a select percentage of the human race had access to the “genetic supermarket.”

The Code Breaker trumpets the optimism inherent to scientific discovery and advancement. Isaacson wisely tempers the enthusiasm however with the reality that we humans, with our new capabilities, might mess things up like never before.

Isaacson quotes Francis Collins, the outgoing director of the National Institute of Health: “Evolution has been optimizing the human genome for 3.85 billion years. Do we really think that some small group of genetic tinkerers could do better without all sorts of unintended consequences?”

Collins’s statement testifies to the fact that our scientific knowledge is yet lacking as concerns CRISPR gene editing. Doudna states that it should only be used when “medically necessary.” Isaacson quotes Doudna summarizing her thoughts based on the numerous ethics conferences on CRISPR she’s participated in: “Science doesn’t move backwards, and we can’t unlearn this knowledge, so we need to find a prudent path forward . . . We now have the power to control our genetic future, which is awesome and terrifying. So we must move forward cautiously and with respect for the power we’ve gained.”

The Code Breaker covers a lot of ground – scientific breakthroughs and the personalities driving them, Covid myths and realities, biomedical ethics – in its 500 pages. Highly recommended reading.

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL), the social ministry expression of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

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