Over the past 25 years, GEN’s editor-at-large Kevin Davies, PhD, has written a series of books tackling different aspects of the genetics and genomics revolution. His most successful was Cracking the Genome, which was published in 2001 and appeared around the same time as the first drafts of the human genome. The $1,000 Genome, published in 2010, covered the dawn of personal genomics and the technological revolution inspired by next-generation sequencing.
Davies’ new book is called Editing Humanity: The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing, published in the United States by Pegasus Books this month. GEN’s editor-in-chief, John Sterling, asked Davies to discuss his motivation and objectives in writing the book.
GEN: Kevin, what’s your new book, Editing Humanity, about?
The emergence of a new technology in biotech or medicine is something to get excited about. Think about what we’ve seen over GEN’s lifetime—the recombinant DNA revolution, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, cloning, the Human Genome Project, next-generation sequencing, and so on. CRISPR burst onto the scene in 2012–2013 as a powerful new tool for targeting and editing almost any stretch of DNA. The applications are almost boundless, not least in medicine and genetic therapy. I wanted to try to capture and convey what all that excitement is about.
GEN: How does this book compare to your earlier books?
My previous books have focused on advances in gene mapping and DNA sequencing—reading DNA if you will. Breakthrough (in 1995) told the story of the race for the BRCA1 breast cancer gene. Cracking the Genome (2001) relived the duel between the publicly funded Human Genome Project and Celera. And The $1,000 Genome (2010) discussed the emergence of personal genomics and the stunning advances afforded by next-generation sequencing.
I confess I was so enamored by the advances in reading DNA that I rather overlooked the emergence of technologies for editing DNA. And of course, the most important of those new technologies is CRISPR. I think we’ll be grappling with the ramifications of genome editing for decades to come. That’s a story worth telling.
GEN: Who is Editing Humanity aimed at?
I always have two audiences in mind when I write a popular science book. On the one hand, I’m trying to reach as broad an audience as possible, because what I most want to do is share some of the joy and excitement I feel every day covering amazing advances in biomedical research to the general public. At the same time, I hope my stories and reporting also interest the researchers at the frontlines who are doing this amazing work. The challenge is not to fall between those two stools. But my mom, who is not a scientist, read the whole thing and said she enjoyed it, so that’s a good sign!
GEN: How is CRISPR and genome editing being applied in the biotech commercial world?
It’s worth remembering that genome editing predates CRISPR gene editing; one journal named genome editing its “Method of the Year” in 2011, largely based on Sangamo Therapeutics’ work using zinc finger nucleases. But we’re seeing exciting progress in using CRISPR as a genome editing tool for sickle-cell disease, blindness, and a host of other genetic disorders, as well as treating certain types of cancer. The most promising story so far is that of Victoria Gray, who appears to be healthy one year after her groundbreaking treatment for sickle-cell disease.
The “big three” CRISPR biotechs—Editas Medicine, CRISPR Therapeutics, and Intellia Therapeutics—have already hit a combined market cap of $10 billion. Beam Therapeutics went public last year. And there are many promising startups pushing the envelope in terms of technology and applications.
GEN: You’re also the founding executive editor of The CRISPR Journal. Did that position help you in writing this book?
Oh yes, immensely! First, the idea to write the book and launch the journal were very much entwined. After I joined Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. [GEN’s publisher] in Spring 2017, the first thing we did was write the business plan to launch The CRISPR Journal. The opportunity to get to know the great scientists who have fueled the CRISPR revolution, and travel to major conferences, including the extraordinary Hong Kong summit in November 2018, has been priceless. Many of those key interviews are available in the journal’s podcast series, GuidePost.
GEN: Speaking of Hong Kong, why were He Jiankui’s actions editing the CRISPR babies so controversial?
There’s a laundry list of reasons, covered extensively in the book. But I’ll mention three. First, there was no unmet medical need to do this experiment; his team was already performing the standard IVF procedures to ensure these babies did not acquire HIV. Second, he didn’t perform the editing accurately; it’s like he hacked the CCR5 gene instead of stitching the precise edit found in HIV-resistant people. In the past few months, three major labs have posted data to indicate that there’s still a lot about DNA editing processes in human embryos we don’t fully understand.
Third, he conducted his “trial” in almost complete secrecy, confiding in just a handful of experts who remarkably didn’t break that confidence. I thought this horrific situation was best summed up at the summit by a leading Chinese bioethicist, Renzong Qiu, who said: “How could Dr. He and his team change the gene pool of the human species, without considering the need to consult other parts of the human species?” Indeed.
GEN: Where do things stand now with heritable genome editing?
Some leading CRISPR scientists, including Feng Zhang and David Liu, joined Eric Lander last year in calling for a moratorium. I think most scientists would agree with that—we need to be sure that the technology is as safe as can be, and that there is a procedure to evaluate any genuine cases where germline editing might be the only viable solution.
A major new report from a National Academy of Sciences commission, co-chaired by my former PhD supervisor Dame Kay Davies and Rockefeller president Rick Lifton, was just published. It charts a very precise but narrow pathway to sanctioning heritable
genome editing in humans for a handful of couples with genetic disorders for whom there are no other viable means to have a healthy, biologically related child. I suspect more people were involved in assembling the report than there are eligible cases in the world.
GEN: Who were some of your favorite characters in the book?
Too many to list, but I’ll mention a few: Fyodor Urnov has forgotten more about genome editing than I’ll ever know. I interviewed him at length in Florence, Italy, but his humor and bon mots are sprinkled liberally throughout the book. Jacob Sherkow was a font of knowledge on the ongoing CRISPR patent saga, to which I dedicate a chapter. And The CRISPR Journal’s chief editor, Rodolphe Barrangou, helped provide a panoramic overview of the field.
But I also enjoyed hearing about the stories of discovery and serendipity in the next generation of CRISPR pioneers. I had a great time interviewing Alexis Komor and Nicole Gaudelli, who together spearheaded the development of base editing in David Liu’s lab. One of the crazier stories belongs to Fei Ann Ran, who had to throw away five years of her PhD when her Harvard supervisor lost her funding. Luckily, she ended up in Feng Zhang’s lab in the summer of 2012, and the rest is history.
GEN: Not content with writing 130,000 words, you’ve also narrated the audiobook?
Yes, that was a blast. The narrator of my last audiobook sounded nothing like me, so I vowed I’d give it a shot. My audition tape was recorded on my iPhone in a closet in my apartment for soundproofing. Happily, I got the nod over six other professional actors, including a former British soap star. It should be available on Audible by the time people read this.
GEN: Finally, what are you going to do for an encore? Have you started thinking about your next book?
Oh my God, no! But I am available for audiobook narration.