When Jennifer Doudna at Berkley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of France collaborated on their CRISPR research, a gene-editing tool, (Blogs 9/11/15, 6/15/16) they little imagined they’d be starting a war. But when Feng Zang, of the Broad Institute at Harvard/MIT, tried to patent his use of CRSPR to alter a nuclear cell, Berkley cried foul. Zang, apparently, had been working along parallel lines with the two women, the same way Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla (Click) worked in the field of electricity. Except, Zang was eager to take a bow for his accomplishment. (“Coming to Terms with CRISPR” by Robert Kolker, Bloomberg Businessweek, June 6-11, 2017, pg. 62.)
True, Doudna and Charpentier had been slow to stake their claim, so they have recently coauthored a new book about their research, Crack in Creation: Gene Edition and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution. Hopefully the publication will get them the recognition they deserve. Hopefully, we won’t have another Rosalind Franklin fiasco on our hands. (Click)
Unlike Zang, the female researchers are of two minds about how history will treat them and their discovery. Doudna sees it as a potential slippery slope. For the greater part of human history, evolution has taken a slow and steady pace. Now, the ability to control our genes not only allows us to change our bodies and our destiny but also the speed of that change. Medical cures for intractable illnesses like Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s Disease may disappear like magic. But, Doudna, like J. Robert Oppenheimer who helped develop the atomic bomb, is ambivalent about her discovery. Where, she wonders, will it take humanity?
Certainly, we haven’t been good stewards of the planet, so why do we imagine we will be good stewards of human development? Josef Mengele types (Click) continue to walk among us, and as mere mortals, can we foresee all the dangers that lie ahead? After 200,000 years of evolution, do we know ourselves well enough to wield a power that can bring change faster than we have time to assess it?