by Kevin Davies
Available on Amazon.com
CRISPR is destined to be one of the greatest inventions of this century. There were tools for gene editing before CRISPR, but none of them have the precision and versatility that CRISPR offers. This year’s Nobel prize in Chemistry went to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for first demonstrating in 2012 that CRISPR, a naturally occurring system in bacteria could be used as a purpose-built gene editing system. Since then, in a short 8 years, a multitude of applications have been developed using CRISPR, including human gene editing.
Kevin Davies is the Executive Editor and founder of CRISPR Journal. As such he has had a ring side seat to the development of CRISPR as well as easy access to leading scientists. Editing Humanity is written for anyone with a basic understanding of cell biology.
The first half of the book is part thriller, part science explainer. The science of CRISPR is explained early on in a brief and accessible manner. It was fascinating the way a series of discoveries around the world led up to Doudna and Charpentier’s 2012 paper. It goes to show how scientific discovery today is less about flashes of individual brilliance and more the brick by brick building of an edifice. It’s a pity that the Nobel can only be given to a maximum of three people. Strangely, in the patent battle for CRISPR, Feng Shang and Broad Institute seem to have prevailed over Doudna and Charpentier’s claims. Feng Shang, who first demonstrated that CRISPR can work in mammalian embryos, was overlooked by the Nobel committee.
The drama around the birth of the first babies from CRISPR edited human embryos is quite gripping. In 2015, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, edited the CCR5 gene in the embryos of twin girls in China. This was the first time germ-line editing (inheritable changes to the human genome) had been attempted in human beings. The furore that followed resulted in the imprisonment of He Jiankui by the Chinese government and a broad moratorium on germ-line editing by most countries around the world.
In the second half, the book does a nice round up of the state of the art of CRISPR. Its applications range from better crop plants to cheap and accurate Covid tests. Therapies for genetic diseases like Sickle Cell Disease, where there is so much hope, are moving slowly because of understandable caution when it comes to applying new kinds of therapies to human beings.
In the last two chapters, Davies lays threadbare the ethical and regulatory issues involved with CRISPR. Should we allow germ-line editing for monogenic hereditary diseases like Sickle Cell Disease? Especially since it is a lot more efficient and effective (fewer cells to edit) in the embryo stage. Should we discourage the consumption of CRISPR based foods by calling them GMO? After all, selective breeding of crops has been going on for millennia. Should we let people edit their offspring’s genes for greater intelligence (very hard)? How about eye color (easier)? How long can you stop them from not trying?
Editing Humanity, is rich in detail and highly engaging. Sooner or later, all of us will hear and learn about CRISPR. This is a great book to start that journey.