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Gene Editing: The Biotech Revolution of our Times | SXSW 2021

Walter Isaacson
Professor of History at Tulane University
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SXSW 2021
March 19, 2021, Online, Austin, USA
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About speakers

Walter Isaacson
Professor of History at Tulane University
Katie Couric
Founder at Katie Couric Media

Walter Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chair of CNN, and editor of Time. He is the author of Leonardo da Vinci; The Innovators; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made

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Founder of Katie Couric Media, award-winning journalist, best-selling author and documentary filmmaker of "Fed Up," "Gender Revolution" and "America Inside Out". I hosted The Today Show, CBS Evening News, was a Special Correspondent for ABC News and Global Anchor for Yahoo News. Also: Cancer advocate, coffee lover and full-time New Yorker!

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About the talk

Bestselling author Walter Isaacson has established himself as the biographer of creativity, innovation, and genius. He has written about Einstein, a genius of the revolution in physics, and Steve Jobs, a genius of the revolution in digital technology. Though the past half-century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet, Isaacson argues we are now on the cusp of a third revolution in science—a revolution in biochemistry that is capable of curing diseases, fending off viruses, and improving the human species. With the invention of CRISPR, we can edit our DNA. CRISPR has been used in China to create “designer babies” that are immune from the AIDS virus and in the U.S. to cure patients of sickle cell anemia. With the life-science revolution, children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study the code of life—and all the moral dilemmas this brings.

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Walter Isaacson Walter, it's so good to see you. Thank you so much for doing this, for, doing it. So great, to be with you again. Would you write so many fascinating books about so many Fascinating People to name a few Leonardo, DaVinci, Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs, Henry Kissinger men, all I might add although I'm sure there's some women haters book. Walter tell us about what inspired you to write your next book to read to dr. Jennifer doudna. You know, I

was interested in the next grade Innovation Revolution. We've had sort of the physics revolutions. The beginning of the twentieth century than the information technology Revolution, the second half of the twentieth century and now because of Christopher and Gene editing. And now covid in vaccine, what entering a new era which is a life sciences Rebelution, the molecules will be the new microchips. In our kids will not only have to learn binary code, but genetic code. And the person who best represents this is Jennifer doudna, because she figured out the structure of

RNA back in the 1990s, and then helped develop crispr as a tool to edit Gene. And now, we're using messenger RNA to do vaccines and cheapest inspired by reading the double helix and reading about Rosalind Franklin. Who was the greatest scientist, who came up with some of the pictures of DNA, which we never got the credit. James, Watson, and Francis Crick. And she said, Okay, I want to be a scientist, and your high school guidance. Counselor said, when do become scientist until she did. So, I wanted to inspire people that we should all

loved the beauty of Nature. And by the way, that women can win the Nobel Prize, like 10:00 4 gallon of Jack this year fascinated about by her upbringing, because I think it really informed, especially little girls in terms of what they believe they can become she faced obstacles, what was it in her personality Walter that that really prompted her to persevere. And what were what about this, the things that shaped her externally as well? First of all, she was curious,

just like Leonardo DaVinci to Steve Jobs. That's a key trait of anybody, I've written about curiosity. Growing up, in Hawaii was about things like the sleeping grass. You touch it and it would Carl, and you, and I've seen things like that that happened in nature, but she just kept obsessing over. How does it do that? What makes it curved? And all of the things in nature that she found miraculous and so she wanted to figure out the underlined molecules and nature and how that would work second late. She was persistent and competitive. You love playing soccer going up in Hawaii, has a bit of

an outsider because she was a note from the mega born of the Mainland and was blond and lanky until they called her names. In the small-school she was in Hawaii which is not a nice name. And I'll bet you felt like an outsider and that also help. But I think being a woman, And figuring out that she was being left out of the sequencing of DNA. The Human Genome Project, so a group of women in my book. Jillian, Banfield Emmanuel shop on J. Jennifer Dowd. They focus on our end. So those are the traits going up. Being a bit of an outside or being persistent and being

passionately obsessively. Leavin playfully. Well, let's talk about her discoveries as she mentioned. She along with dr. Emmanuel, sharp, n, t, a. I hope I pronounce that correctly. Walter won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for crisper before we get into RNA and mRNA messenger RNA. Can you explain what Christopher is for a 5th grader? Cuz you're so good at breaking things down for a few years now. But I still think people scratch their head when they hear the, the the acronym,

It is both a simple and a beautiful concept bacteria have been fighting viruses were about 1 billion years longer than we have and they developed a system which has cost of repeated sequences in their DNA. That's where the word Chris book comes from and those clustered repeated sequences contain. Some of the genetic material for any virus that has attacked them in the past so that virus attacks, again and knows how to chop it up. It's in the death of immune to them. Just what we need these days and so would crispr does, is it Target a

sequence of DNA and it uses a scissors and enzyme. But it's like a molecular scissors to cut the DNA right? Words. Targeted. And with Jennifer Dowd and others did check. We can turn that into a tool to edit our own genes, so it's pretty simple. It's just a molecular tool that sassy That'll cut DNA in the spot that the RNA tells it to Target. But they're not real, and you can give me any explanation, but I know a lot of people are really worried about this technology there. They think it's incredibly promising, which clearly it is. We seen that, which I'll talk to you about

in the moment, but there are a lot of fears about crispr, about designer babies, about mad scientist, talk about the pros and cons of this exciting Discovery. What are those able to do is get in embryos, edit human embryos, so that you have inherited them jeans at it. We can edit our species so that our kids, and all of our descendants will have different Ray. That sounds like sci-fi. But in 2018, just three years ago, a Chinese Rogue scientist, who'd been to Jennifer doudna conferences, was able to edit in a

zambria Two twin girls so they didn't have the receptor for HIV the virus that caused the receptor, the virus that causes AIDS. And you think that's a great thing, they'll never catch a, but it also caused a lot of feel shocked and all because it means you could edit, you know, certainly things like Huntington's disease, Sickle Cell, Anemia that are simple genetic fixes, that's probably good. But soon, you'll be able to edit from muscle mass, which is pretty easy or height or skin color, hair color, eye color, and even memory and processing power and

IQ. So, there's a lot of problems with that one of which is that the rich will be able to buy better jeans for their kids to be able to go into a clinic and say, okay, I get to be taller and more muscular and this that and the other. And that's a problem and secondly it will harm the diversity of our species. So one reason I wrote this book is that it's a wonderful miracle. Help us fight things like covid, but also have sickle cell anemia, but we got to be careful and there's like Prometheus matching fire from the gods. We are able to hack around jeans and no species has ever

been able to do that before. So we need to figure it out. That's scary as hell. I think you think of like designing a super racer, you know, what does this mean and are there? In fact, I mean, are people thinking about this at the Gold ulema? Have a guardrail been put in place? Or is this just something that people are talking about in the theoretical sense? You talk about a super raise Jennifer down the one night after she invented this crispr Gene editing, technology had a nightmare and what she's brought into a room to meet somebody wants to understand and the person looks up its

Adolf Hitler wearing a pig face. And so she decides okay, we're going to have to gather scientists from around the world and figure out what are the guard rails. But how are we going to try to stop at which is hard to do? Because even I was able to go to a lab with to have Jennifer's graduate student and edit human genes using crispr. They don't worry, we flushed it down the sink with some chlorine, but we have to be sure. We can keep this genie in the bottle now. We're going to want to use it to fight things on fire, since we are going to want to use it to fight things like Huntington's

and sickle cell and cystic fibrosis, but I think we have to have rules that say, you can't use it for anything that's not medically necessary and you can use it to fix disease. But you can't use it to enhance our children cuz that's where I think. You'd better the danger but there's been a lot of discussion about this and the ethics of it is very much a part of the book where we it's complicated. We got to figure out what are we going to do? How do I guess the question is Walter? How do you establish and enforce those rules who makes the rules? And you know, and they're big and

assurances that those rules won't be broken. Honestly, it does have the makings of a black of a really terrifying Black Mirror episode. Yeah. I mean you could have medical tourism to at the United States, besides the Bandit, but somebody in an offshore island decides to have a fertility clinic where they added babies for you and let you design your baby. However, we do are able to find International rules of what we're doing. You know, Peggy Hamburg, used to be the FDA commissioner, she's one of the coaches of an international commission that's trying to set the

rules and even China with his Rogue. Scientists added to the babies 3-years ago, has mailed totally band. So you'll never be able to stop at total. You can't stop, you know, trafficking in ivory tusks or shoplifting, but I think we can try to control it if we have, the will to do so at. But also, we got to be careful. We don't control it too much because we're talkin you and I are now talking about will that's kind of bad to be able to design. Our children are some good things to. We want to be able to design our children so that, you know, They don't have, Huntington's are

Tay-Sachs a sickle cell or cystic fibrosis and maybe even we want to design our children for other good Trey. So I think I've got it before. We need to excite. Hey, we don't want to ever fix genetic problems. Definitely, and what about things like cancer, you know, obviously there's a strong. I mean, they're there is they're not always hereditary, but is there they can be in. There can be a strong position pancreatic cancer, which, which killed my sister. Do they think there's a lot of Promise in the world of cancer as well.

Absolutely. And you know, a whole lot about colon cancer. Also, unfortunately, I'm sorry about pancreatic cancer and is not just a hereditary component. You can use crisper to be able to detect cancer cells, and then actually it's part of an immunotherapy system. I try to attack them. So these are the many, many good things even now are both in China. And in the United States. We're starting to fight cancer and clinical trials, using crispr, Can I ask you a dumb question because Walter teach it? How do they actually do it? You know, how do you, how do you

edit and splice genes? Because I'm trying to picture it and I can't quite do that in my head with a different way. I suppose you want to fix Sickle Cell which they've done this past year. Enjoy the woman of sickle cell in Nashville Tennessee. They take out the blood and the Amero, the dino bone cells and you're out of the shelves and you can put them back in the body, that's easy to do with blood Chuck, you can do it with the eye, there trying to fix ya some poems, by doing that one all though, it'll be cheaper and easier in the long run, is to take an

early-stage embryos or sperm on and then you can edit that in a Petri dish. He's what you can say, okay, we're going to take out the gene for Huntington's. We're going to put in a gene for more muscle mass or I got the gene that stops muscles from growing and then you do that and you implanted you know, in an in vitro fertilization Clinic. It's really amazing. Isn't it when you think of the technology? It's mind-blowing. And of course now with covid-19 talk about perfect timing on,

we're not celebrating obviously this horrific pandemic but it really is quite relevant for research to coming up with the vaccines, which are using messenger RNA. Can you explain how how how her her Discovery has been implemented in the production of vaccines? Yes, about a year ago in March, when the pandemic first struck Jennifer doudna has a seventeen-year-old son named Daddy had packed packed them off on the train to Fresno. California in order to be in

one of those robot building competition middle of the night. She wakes up a husband cuz we got to go drive and pick him up. I've been hearing about this pandemic. I don't want them to be in this big Conference Center and I Robot building competition event. It's all because of cold and that's when Jennifer decided she was going to turn her attention to Scientist fighting coat it. Now, you can use crisper as an easy detection, technology to just buy the genetic material of the coronavirus. So that's being rolled out now, which is crispr detection to

you also can use crisper to do with bacteria. Did you say Spotted this virus that genetic material of it, and then I'm going to cut it up and I'm going to kill it. And another thing is, the, I just got to yesterday. My second Pfizer vaccine that as you said is an mRNA vaccine, just like modana that uses RNA as a messenger to tell the outer part of ourselves where proteins are built, which, until I d n, a I was trying to sound smart and I wish I could leave it in, but I'm not going to try

the famous sibling. It's the one that gets put on magazine covers. But, like, a lot of famous sibling, it doesn't do much work. It just sits in the nucleus of our cells. Chill rating information. But the r Legos their copy. Some of the information goes to the outer region of the cell and builds proteins. So what an RNA vaccine does is it said, all right, here's the code to build the spike protein apart of the spike protein, from a coronavirus to build a fake coronavirus, Spike protein, that goes into my blood system, and my immune system

kicks in and says, we don't like that Spike protein. That means, if I ever get hit by the real, you know, coronavirus, it'll kill it because my immune system has been stimulated to do it. All of this comes from the use of the most miracle miracle molecule which is RNA and Jennifer, as I sat in the 1990s, did for RNA sort of white Rosalind Franklin dead for DNA. She helped figure out the structure of it as Benjamin Watson and Francis Crick the double helix, and figuring out how Find a war could be the most important thing we're going

to do. If I answer to fight viruses to edit around Jean because our names of thing that tells ourselves with the bills, So has she been intimately involved Walter with the development of these vaccines and what dr. Fauci saying we are entering an era, sadly of pandemics. I imagine she is going to be absolutely instrumental as perhaps more variants. I hate to even say it out loud show up, or even new viruses Lawnwood. She is working on in the people who are sort of arrivals

the guy that thinks a broad Institute of MIT and Harvard working on the next generation of thing. Another one right now, my arm is killing me. My wife is Young got a headache because our immune system has been stimulated to fight the virus. If you could make it work, just like whisper which is to say instead of stimulating, my immune system, we're just going to attack the virus directly there, something called Carver, which is coming out that song, Jang and others have worked on it. Am I It's something called Pac-Man. They all have wonderful name that comes out of Jennifer

down is orbit which will in the future will be able to coat it and say okay this new viruses attack, it'll take 20 minutes, maybe to figure out the sequins and say we're going to code this scissors to chop up that virus. So that's going to happen. And detection technology is not going to happen and that will solve my dr. Fauci crisis of new pandemic, coming along real quickly. But how long does that take? Isn't there a process where they have to identify and figure out at all bad? I mean, how quickly can this technology respond to

new challenges? Very quickly as you saw with Madonna and 5, it really took a blessing a month to take the sequence of the coronavirus and then build RNA that would say take a spike protein for, you know, in some ways once the sequence change, once the virus mutates whatever we're talking about a day or two willing to find the RNA War, the scissors like system to kill it with heart is how to figure it out, how to put it in these lipid nanoparticles. So they can put in a syringe and get it into my body and that's why you

have to keep them cold. It's a delivery system that the harder part making the new things. I believe the chop up the virus or stimulate our immune system. I'm pretty quickly. Every time we got a new wave of viruses, that's what bacteria been doing for a billion years. And that's what Chris for teaching. That's how what Jennifer figure it out. Is that crispr teaches us how to do it? What about collaboration? I know that are they working together or she working together with the MIT scientists. Because obviously, when you're talking about the survival of the human race, you would think

that people would put Nature's aside and work together that is happening. Isn't it a wonderful ending? I think which is, she and Emmanuel shopping J what in a terrible competition at it. You know, strong competition with the people at the broad Institute of MIT and there's wonderful scientist. Their name Fong Chang. Born in China raised in Iowa. Really sweet good scientist. They both came up with Waze. Use crisper, which has been being discovered by Jennifer doudna and Emmanuel shopping check, but then it took him another six months to come up with

ways to use it in a human cell in order, daddy Schuman cell and they've been that was an early 2013 and they're still in a patent battle over, who has the patent to use it will eventually be solved. What was really cool is in March when both the people at the brode Institute and then Jennifer doudna group out in Berkeley and in the Bay Area. California first started doing things like detection Technologies for the coronavirus ways to kill the coronavirus instead of trying to patent it or only intellectual property,

they instantly put it up on last night, after night, each of the ladder, be putting things online, that would be in the public domain and that help kind of restore the scent of the scientist or doing it. Because it's a note, Pursuit. That's that's awesome. You know Walter I Marvel at your ability to jump into these really interesting areas of of study weather at Shooters with the job performed policy with Henry Kissinger, the world of art science and invention with Leonardo DaVinci and

you know Ben Franklin and obviously everything that he accomplished I mean you must be such a quick study. How do you how do you do quickly? What is specially with the code breaker? This new book, there's a joy in figuring out how something works and that joyous, especially great, when that something is our cell. So I love it. I think it's important on all of us. If we're humanist, I think it's really bad to say. I can understand. Science is bad for the scientist to say, I don't like poetry. I don't like or not because it's Steve Jobs over and over again.

Insisted to me when I was working with a, it's the people who can connect the humanities to the science who stand in both Realms that are the Leonardo Davinci's. That's what you're truly a man. That guy standing in the circle in the Square, a self-portrait of Leonardo that it has a spiritual quality, people who love those the humanities and Sciences tend to be the most creative person. So I think to me, being curious about all aspects of nature, that's what this thing. Leonardo, he loved anatomy and he loved our deal of zoology and he loved music and you

love Matt likewise a Jennifer doudna. I mean, the reason I love this working on this book is that she's a brilliant scientist, but she also cares about women in science, and she also cares about the ethics, about the moral and tells that type of connection is always excited. Me and look, Katie, you have a career of being interested in all sorts of things. It's fun to be interesting. Also fun to be somebody like yourself. But I think curiosity is you said, which really motivated her from a very early age, so important to stay curious for your entire life. And

by the way, I just want to stay so important that they must defy science for people because this is when science people are starting to to not trust Sciences, Mount as much, not appreciate scientists as they should. So this is a real love letter. I think the scientists everywhere, and that's so important, especially, I think in this day and age for obvious reasons, which we could have a conversation about July, It's called the Codebreaker Jennifer Jennifer doudna crispr and the future of the human race Walter is always so fun to

talk to you. Thank you so much. Thank you Kelly. I get energized. Every time I talk to you.

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