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Dissecting the CRISPR-baby stories

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Dissecting the CRISPR-baby stories


After the 2017 meeting, He started reading biographies of scientific risk-takers who were ultimately hailed as heroes, from Edward Jenner, creator of the first vaccine, to Robert Edwards, pioneer of in vitro fertilization (IVF). In January 2019, he wrote to government investigators: “I firmly believe that what I am doing is to promote the progress of human civilization. History will stand on my side.”

Looking back at my notes from the 2017 meeting, I discovered that He had remembered only the first half of that provocative statement. It continued: “What’s going on right now is cowboy science … but that doesn’t mean that’s the best way to proceed … we should take a lesson from our history and do better the next time around.”

Learning from history?

Kevin Davies’s Editing Humanity follows a circuitous path through the remarkably diverse experiments and laboratories where the CRISPR puzzle was pieced together. The story of discovery is gripping, not least because Davies, a geneticist turned editor and writer, skillfully weaves together a wealth of detail in a page-turning narrative. The book gives a textured picture of the intersection of academic science with the business of biotechnology, exploring the enormous competition, conflict, and capital that have surrounded CRISPR’s commercialization. 

However, Davies’s book is heavy on the business of gene editing, light on the humanity. The narrative emphasizes the arenas of scientific discovery and technological innovation as though they alone are where the future is made.  

Humanity first appears as something more than an object of gene editing in the last line of the book: “CRISPR is moving faster than society can keep up. To where is up to all of us.” Yet most of us are missing from the story. Admittedly, the book’s focus is the gene editors and their tools. But for readers already primed to see science as the driver of progress, and society as recalcitrant and retrograde until it eventually “catches up,” this telling reinforces that consequential myth. 

Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker cleaves even more closely to scientific laboratories, following the personalities behind the making of CRISPR. The main protagonist of his sprawling book is Doudna, but it also profiles the many other figures, from graduate students to Nobel laureates, whose work intersected with hers. In always admiring and sometimes loving detail, Isaacson narrates the excitement of discovery, the heat of competition, and the rise of scientific celebrity—and, in He’s case, infamy. It is a fascinating story of rivalry and even pettiness, albeit with huge stakes in the form of prizes, patents, profits, and prestige. 

Yet for all its detail, the book tells a narrow story. It is a conventional celebration of discovery and invention that sometimes slides into rather breathless celebrity profile (and gossip). Apart from some chapters of Isaacson’s own rather superficial ruminations on “ethics,” his storytelling rehearses clichés more than it invites reflection and learning. Even the portraits of the people feel distorted by his flattering lens. 

The one exception is He, who gets a few chapters as an unwelcome interloper. Isaacson makes little effort to understand his origins and motivations. He is a nobody with a “smooth personality and a thirst for fame” who attempts to force his way into an elite club where he has no business being. Disaster ensues.

He’s story ends with a “fair trial” and a prison sentence. Here Isaacson parrots a state media report, unwittingly playing propagandist. The official Chinese story was crafted to conclude the He affair and align Chinese science with the responsible rather than the rogue.

Authorizing narratives

These stories of heroic science take for granted what makes a hero—and a villain. Davies’s account is considerably more careful and nuanced, but it too shifts to casting stones before seeking to understand the sources of failure—where He’s project came from, how a person trained at elite American universities could have believed he would be valorized, not condemned, and how he could get so far without realizing how deep a hole he had dug for himself. 

editing humanity

My overwhelming sense from my interviews with He is that far from “going rogue,” he was trying to win a race. His failure lay not in refusing to listen to his scientific elders, but in listening too intently, accepting their encouragement and absorbing things said in the inner spaces of science about where genome editing (and humanity) are headed. Things like: CRISPR will save humanity from the burden of disease and infirmity. Scientific progress will prevail as it has always done when creative and courageous pioneers push boundaries. Genome editing of the germline—embryos, eggs, or sperm that will pass changes down to future generations—is inevitable; the only question is who, when, and where. 

He heard—and believed in—the messianic promise of the power to edit. As Davies writes, “If fixing a single letter in the genetic code of a fellow human being isn’t the coveted chalice of salvation, I don’t know what is.” 

Indeed, as even Isaacson notes, the National Academies had sent similar signals, leaving the door open to germline engineering for “serious diseases or conditions.” He Jiankui was roundly criticized for making an edit that was “medically unnecessary”—a genetic change he hoped would make babies genetically resistant to HIV. There are, the critics argued, easier and safer ways to avoid transmitting the virus. But he believed that the terrible stigma in China against HIV-positive people made it a justified target. And the Academies left room for that call: “It is important to note that such concepts as ‘reasonable alternatives’ and ‘serious disease or condition’ … are necessarily vague. Different societies will interpret these concepts in the context of their diverse historical, cultural, and social characteristics.”

Science-centric storytelling implies that  Science sits outside of society, that it deals primarily with pure arenas of nature and knowledge. But that is a false narrative.  

He understood this as an authorization. These are the true origins of his grotesque experiment. The picture of He, and the scientific community he was embedded in, is a rather more ambiguous one than the virtuous science of Isaacson’s telling. Or, rather, it’s a more human one, in which knowledge and technical acumen aren’t necessarily accompanied by wisdom and may instead be colored by ambition, greed, and myopia. Isaacson does the scientists a disservice by presenting them as the makers of the future rather than as people confronting the awesome power of the tools they have created, attempting (and, often, failing) to temper promises of progress with the humility to recognize that they are out of their depth. 

Another cost of science-centric storytelling is the way it implies that science sits outside of society, that it deals primarily with the pure arenas of nature and knowledge. But that is a false narrative. For instance, the commercial business of IVF is a crucial part of the story, and yet it receives remarkably little attention in Davies’s and Isaacson’s accounts. In this regard, their books reflect a deficit in the genome-­editing debates. Scientific authorities have tended to proceed as though the world is as governable as a laboratory bench, and as if anyone who thinks rationally thinks like them. 

Humanity’s stories 

These science-centric stories sideline the people in whose name the research is done. Eben Kirksey’s The Mutant Project brings those people into the picture. His book, too, is a tour of the actors at the frontiers of genome editing, but for him those actors also include patients, activists, artists, and scholars who engage with disability and disease as lived experiences and not merely as DNA molecules. In Kirksey’s book, issues of justice are entangled with the way stories are told about how bodies should be—and not be. This wrests questions of progress from the grip of science and technology. 

Like Davies, Kirksey uses the He affair to frame his story. A skilled anthropologist, he is at his best when drawing out people’s own stories about what is at stake for them. Some of the most remarkable interviews in the book are with the patients from He Jiankui’s trial, including an HIV-positive medical professional who became more deeply committed to He’s project after he was fired from his job because his HIV status was discovered. 

Kirksey’s attention to human beings as more than engineerable bodies, and to the desires that drive the imperative to edit, invites us to recognize the extraordinary peril of reaching into the gene-editing tool kit for salvation. 

That peril is too often obscured by hastily spun stories of progress. On the final morning of the genome-editing summit in Hong Kong, less than 24 hours after He had presented his CRISPR-babies experiment, the conference organizing committee issued a statement simultaneously rebuking him and laying a pathway for those who would follow in his footsteps. Behind the statement was a story: one in which technology is racing ahead, and society needs to just accept it—and affirm it. A member of that committee told Kirksey why they had rushed to judgment: “The first person who puts it on paper wins.”

So far, the CRISPR story has been about racing to be the first to write—not just scientific papers, but the nucleotides of the genome and rules for the human future. The rush to write—and win—the future leaves little room for learning from patterns of the past. Stories of technological futures, thrilling though they may be, substitute a thin narrative of progress for the richness and fragility of the human story. 

We need to listen to more and better storytellers. Our common future depends upon it.

Tech

Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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