THE MUTANT PROJECT-a book review

At the same time, some of the more entrepreneurial see the potential for using genetic modification to selectively breed desirable and profitable human traits-high IQ, increased muscle mass, or designer skin color, and enhanced fertility, including choosing the gender of babies.

THE MUTANT PROJECT

Inside the global race to genetically modify humans

By Eben Kirksey

If this were the title of a fiction book, you might expect the main characters to be brilliant but misguided scientists, funded by biotech start-ups who see potential for massive profits by developing methods to manipulate human DNA. The applications of such technology for the treatment of genetic diseases, cancers, and viral infections could be worth billions of dollars.

At the same time, some of the more entrepreneurial see the potential for using genetic modification to selectively breed desirable and profitable human traits-high IQ, increased muscle mass, or designer skin color, and enhanced fertility, including choosing the gender of babies.

You would be right except The Mutant Project is not fiction; it is based on facts, meticulously researched by Eben Kirksey, Ph.D. In this book, Dr. Kirksey chronicles his travels around the world as he learned about genetic modification using CRISPR by interviewing multiple scientists and investors who were involved in the first genetically edited babies born in 2018.

The Mutant Timeline

One does not need a graduate degree in genetics to understand this book, although I am sure it would help. But here are some basic facts that introduce the book.

1818-Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the world’s first science fiction book, about a young researcher fwho produces a creature with superhuman powers

1901-Hugo de Vries writes The Mutation Theory, about foundational ideas about genetic variation

1953- Watson and Crick are credited with discovering the DNA’s double helix structure

graphic depiction of DNA- the double helix

1978- Louise Brown is born, the world’s first “test-tube” baby

1987-CRISPR is discovered

a drawing representing CRISPR
CRISPR-Cas9 is a customizable tool that lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. This lets scientists study our genes in a specific, targeted way. Credit: Ernesto del Aguila III, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH

2000-President Bill Clinton reveals preliminary findings from the Human Genome Project

2016-the first CRISPR clinical trial in the United States secures government approval

2016-The China National GeneBank opens, the goal is to collect DNA from every human on earth

CRISPR

CRISPR, “clustered interspaced short palindromic repeats” was discovered in bacteria in 1987, its purpose initially unknown. By 2012 scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier demonstrated how to modify human DNA with CRISPR. It is an enzyme that can “generate mutants by chopping up DNA.”

CRISPR/CAS9 systems allow scientists to make targeted changes to an organism's DNA
CRISPR/CAS9 systems allow scientists to make targeted changes to an organism’s DNA This image is excerpted from a U.S. GAO report: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-478SP

Even though Dr. Kirksey is reporting as a journalist, he makes it clear that he agrees with those who feel this technology must be approached cautiously, as there is a clear risk that “biotech companies may put profits ahead of patients.”

The chief protagonist of this saga is Dr. Jiankui He of China, the physician scientist responsible for modifying two embryos, creating the first edited babies in the world, twin girls born in China in October 2018. He believed he has assured his place in history by using CRISPR to make these embryos resistant to HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

Such a technique could change the world, potentially making all humans resistant to this infectious disease which is deadly without treatment. How Dr. He went from “powerful scientific entrepreneur to pariah” within a few short years is both riveting and disappointing.

This story moves at a rapid pace as the author travelled around the world attending lectures and interviewing multiple people in varied locations; I suggest not laying the book aside once you start, as I found it easy to get lost. A background in basic biology is helpful but not necessary to enjoy this book, since the ethical and moral issues it raises go beyond the realm of science.

A nice feature of the book-it is dedicated to the twin girls, Lulu and Nana, who live in China with their parents and are reported to be healthy.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for a digital galley copy in exchange for my honest review.

other books by Dr. Kirksey

Freedom in Entangled Worlds

The Multispecies Salon

Emergent Ecologies

And if you enjoy video

Human Nature-documentary movie

Human Nature is a provocative exploration of CRISPR’s far-reaching implications, through the families it’s affecting, and the bioengineers who are testing its limits. How will this new power change our relationship with nature? What will it mean for human evolution? To answer these questions we must look back billions of years and peer into an uncertain future.

Unnatural Selection-documentary television series

From eradicating disease to selecting a child’s traits, gene editing gives humans the chance to hack biology. Meet the real people behind the science.

available on Netflix

exploring the HEART of health and genetics

I hope you will consider reading Dr. Kirksey’s book and watching some of the videos. The medical sciences are finding more and more uses for genetics, for example the mRNA vaccines developed to prevent COVID-19 infection. As Dr. Kirksey described in the book, there are significant ethical implications that bear watching.

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Dr. Aletha

6 Best Medical Books of the Past 75 Years

What are the best medical books written in the past 75 years? Here’s one opinion.

I need to tell you this post contains multiple affiliate links, both for your convenience and to help support this blog by the commission paid if you choose to use. Thank you.

 

I read the Parade magazine in my Sunday newspaper regularly (see previous post). To celebrate  75 years of publication,  the editors commissioned  author Ann Patchett to create a list of “The 75 Best Books of the Past 75 Years” .

 

As Ms. Patchett explained, she enlisted the help of the staff at Parnassus Books, a bookstore she owns in Nashville Tennessee. They limited their consideration  to books written in English. She calls the list a “mash-up that exemplifies the passionate convictions of 17 booksellers.”

 

Many of the books of the list are unfamiliar to me, but I recognized some well known classics like

Charlotte’s Web

The Old Man and the Sea

Fahrenheit 451

A Wrinkle in Time (a personal favorite of mine) 

Where the Wild Things Are

To Kill a Mockingbird, and

the Harry Potter series.

 

Although many books deal with birth and/or death to some extent, I searched the list for ones with a definite medical connection or theme that ran through most if not all of the book.  I’m sharing those with you here.(There might be others, these seemed most  obvious to me) . They are listed in chronological order by publication dates.  

 

Caution: Most of these discuss adult themes and issues which may not be appropriate for children or adolescents without adult guidance.

 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This is a novel about a woman with depression but is considered semi-autobiographical. The author , Sylvia Plath, a poet,  suffered from depression and died by suicide not long after publishing this book, her only novel. It was also made into a film.

 

 

 

 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.

This may be more familiar to you as the same titled movie which won five major Academy Awards, including Best Actor  Jack Nicholson and Best Actress Louise Fletcher.

 The novel’s events take place in a psychiatric hospital and examines the treatment and mistreatment of patients in such facilities.

 

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson, PhD.

 

the double helix molecule of DNA
used courtesy of skeeze on Pixabay

 

 

 

As the name implies, Dr. Watson wrote about his and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. The book mostly ignored the contributions of Rosalind Franklin, who also worked on DNA, earning it criticism for this.

 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Described as a young adult novel, it relates the story of  a female high school student who sinks into depression after being raped, which she is afraid to report to anyone.   

 

 

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

In this novel ,  Lucy, a young woman hospitalized with a mysterious illness for 9 weeks, receives a 5 day visit from her mother.   

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, M.D.

A memoir by a neurosurgical resident who learns he is terminally ill. I have reviewed this book here. I would vote this as the best medical book. 

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

 

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