Author, Researcher Speak on Breaking the Virus Code

By Dave Moore, Staff Writer

Into his 560-page book “The Code Breaker,” biographer Walter Isaacson packs a mystery, a thriller, a story of redemption, and a timely account of one of the biggest human triumphs in the past century, or maybe even the millennium.

Isaacson and UT Southwestern professor and researcher Dr. Eric Olson spent an hour Thursday, April 22, addressing a gathering of members from Dallas Regional Chamber leadership programs, on the significance of gene-splicing breakthroughs that has COVID-19 on the run.

Isaacson also discussed the path taken by Jennifer Doudna – the “code breaker” – who overcame bias against females in science, and assembled her own team of rivals to crack the viral code, which has plagued humanity since the beginning of time.

Both Isaacson and Olson were interviewed by Talmage Boston, a commercial litigation attorney at Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton, who also frequently hosts panel discussions with noted authors.

“You and I have been involved in the Better Angels Society,” Boston said to Isaacson. “Basically, the better angels of these scientists’ nature just emerged and came together, and that’s quite a story. Were you surprised?”

“I was inspired,” Isaacson responded. “I saw the patent battles …. and (conflicts) over priorities, and that was beginning to wear on me. I thought everyone should be in this for more than the patents and the prizes. And of course, they were. But COVID-19 came along and reminded them that they were serving a higher purpose.”

Scientists like Olson, Isaacson said, serve the highest of all purposes, which is to protect human lives, and to help them thrive.

In “Code Breaker,” Isaacson tells the story of Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna, whose father, a professor of literature, fed her fascination for biology by taking her on nature walks where they lived, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Yet Doudna faced obstacles as a young girl and then later as a woman in the field of science. One of her school guidance counselors told her “girls don’t do science.” Isaacson, who has also written best-selling biographies of Apple’s Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Leonardo da Vinci, said Doudna faced the same problem again when she sought funding to start research companies.

“She ended up raising her own money,” he said.

Isaacson praised Olson for his research outcomes. Olson is working on a form of gene therapy to treat and cure Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), which strikes boys by age 10, placing them in wheelchairs, and kills them in their mid-20s.

“The difficult part of gene editing is delivering them into the right body cells,” Isaacson said. “And Dr. Olson has been a leader in that.”

During his portion of the presentation, Olson spoke of the promise of CRISPR gene editing technology. He said his application of that technology, which was used on genetically modified mice, and dogs with DMD, followed the trail blazed by Doudna and her team. Learn more about the work of Olson and his associates.

“There are many other potential uses for CRISPR,” Olson said, “ranging from the elimination of malaria, to improving crop production, and even to correcting climate change, a challenge being pursued by Jennifer Doudna’s institute.”

Both Isaacson and Olson mentioned the ethical perils gene editing represents, such as the potential for scientists to create designer babies that will alter the course of human evolution.

The event was sponsored by UT Southwestern Medical Center – the only academic medical center in the world to serve as home to six Nobel Laureates – and the UT Southwestern Medical Foundation.

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