Influencers with Andy Serwer: Walter Isaacson

In this episode of Influencers, Andy is joined by 'The Code Breaker' author and former CNN CEO Walter Isaacson to talk about his most recent book along with the future of gene engineering and the current state of big tech. Read More...

In this episode of Influencers, Andy is joined by ‘The Code Breaker’ author and former CNN CEO Walter Isaacson to talk about his most recent book along with the future of gene engineering and the current state of big tech.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs– all figures who fundamentally shaped the world we inhabit today. And they’ve all had their lives chronicled by bestselling author Walter Isaacson who has a special knack for identifying how a genius can leave society unrecognizable to those who came before. His new book, “The Code Breaker, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race,” tells the story of the scientist who discovered how to tinker with the biological inheritance using a science called CRISPR that defines each and every one of us.

In addition to his writing, Walter teaches history at Tulane University and serves as a distinguished fellow at the Aspen Institute. On this episode of “Influencers,” Walter joined me to talk about how gene editing will become big business, why the scientific discovery has helped us fight COVID-19, and what the backlash against big tech means for the next Steve Jobs.


Hello, everyone, and welcome to “Influencers.” I’m Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest, Walter Isaacson, professor of history at Tulane University and bestselling author whose new book is “The Code Breaker, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.” Walter, welcome.

WALTER ISAACSON: Hey, good to be back with you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: So let’s start off by talking about the new book. Who is Jennifer Doudna and what is CRISPR?

WALTER ISAACSON: CRISPR is a gene editing technology, and by the way its base is pretty simple because bacteria have been using it for a billion years to fight viruses. What they do is when they know of viruses attack them they take a mugshot. Next time they just have little scissors, an enzyme, and chop up its DNA. What Jennifer Doudna did was discover how you could take that system and use it to edit our own genes to target any particular snippet of DNA you want to change in our genes. So she and her partner Emmanuelle Charpentier were able to make this gene editing tool, and they just won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for it.

ANDY SERWER: It’s an incredible story, a great book. I just finished it not long ago, Walter. Congratulations. And you get really deep into the science. How did you get into that whole process? I mean, you really had to learn a lot about the technology here.

WALTER ISAACSON: Well I got to edit genes in Jennifer Doudna’s lab in California at Berkeley. Of course, you don’t have to worry. We mixed it all with chlorine and flushed it down a drain. But I found out how easy it is to use CRISPR, you know, just a little liquid in a tube, you can actually get it online, to edit human cells. I also, as you know Andy, I’ve been involved in writing about the digital revolution which has, you know, dominated the past 50 years.

Now I think we’re into a new revolution that’ll be even bigger. And that’s the biotech revolution where we’re not only coding microchips but we’re coding molecules. We’ve seen it work as a way to code a vaccine to fight coronavirus, and Jennifer Doudna has also used it to create tests so we can test whether or not we’ve got viruses or for that matter particular tumors or you know, any infection we may have. And also it’s been used to make vaccines and now cure sickle cell anemia this past year by editing the genes of a woman down in Mississippi. And a couple of years ago in China a slightly rogue scientist edited the embryos of twin– what became twin girls so that they not only had edits that made them less susceptible to a virus, those edits will be passed along to their children and all their descendants. So we really have the potential to edit the human race.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. You said I think the biotech revolution is going to be 10 times bigger or more important than the digital revolution per se. How exactly will our lives be different because of this Walter, say, in 10 years or 50 years?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well first of all, as of this year it’s different, first of all because we’ve been able to cure certain genetic diseases like sickle cell, and they’re already in trials curing congenital blindness in China and in Pennsylvania doing trials to stop cancer. So some of these have already been used on real patients, and others are being tested on living patients. So we’re really across the threshold of when will CRISPR change our lives. It’ll be particularly easy in the next few years to do diseases and disabilities that come from simple genetic mutations. That includes things like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Tay Sachs disease, Huntington’s, sickle cell anemia, so many diseases like that.

Eventually we’ll be able to edit things that have multiple genes. And then we really get into a brave new world, no pun– well, I guess a pun intended because that’s what Huxley writes about– where we’re going to be able to say, all right, we want to edit our children to have certain traits. And some of those traits will be relatively easy to edit such as muscle mass is something that’s a pretty simply regulated by simple set of genes, and eventually more complex things. We can probably edit things like hair color, eye color, height, and eventually things like memory. And of course down the road a few decades from now, even general intelligence. We’ll be able to tweak things so that you know it will help maybe boost a few IQ points. That’s in the realm of science fiction, but like all good science fiction, some of it’s come true already.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. You talk in your book about the trade offs and controversies that those sort of decisions will engender in the future. It’s going to be very interesting to watch that unfold. I want to ask you a little bit about commercialization because Jennifer Doudna co-founded a gene editing company that used these technology therapies to bring them to market. What’s the landscape for gene editing companies and investors look like, Walter?

WALTER ISAACSON: Oh it’s huge. There are two or three of them that started right after Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered how to make CRISPR into a gene editing tool. And then Feng Zhang, a great researcher at Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, he showed how it could work in human cells. And they each form different CRISPR companies. There’s, you know, CRISPR Therapeutics, there’s Mammoth, and they’re all doing similar things meaning using CRISPR to edit human genes. CRISPR Therapeutics is the company that Emmanuelle Charpentier started. That’s the one that succeeded in curing sickle cell anemia. And then in Mississippi, Nashville is where the hospital was, and then also some blood disorders were cured in Europe. So we’re seeing that therapeutics company.

But an interesting big two companies you ought to look at are ones that are now making easy to use detection kits for the coronavirus. And not just the coronavirus but any virus that comes along, whether your kid’s got strep throat, and for that matter it can be programmed to look for a specific type of tumor cells. If your tumor has been– if you have cancer and you have a tumor and it’s been sequenced, it can look to see, detect that. Those detection companies, there are two of them worth looking at. One is called Sherlock, as in Doctor Holmes, and Sherlock is the one done by Feng Zhang and his crowd at the Broad Institute. And then there’s Mammoth Therapeutics. I should have said Caribou before, that’s the gene editing company that Jennifer Doudna’s group did. But the detection company that they did is Mammoth.

And both Mammoth and Sherlock are making will be very easy to use at home testing kits. And this will bring biology into our house the way the personal computer brought microchips and the internet into our house. People will be able to build things on these platforms just like people build apps on an iPhone. You might be able to build in that– somebody, some entrepreneur might create a company that would use these devices to say, look at your gut microbiome and see what type of yogurt you should be eating or as I say, detect cancer, viruses, bacteria, infections. So this will be happening this year in 2021. These things have already been initially, gone through the initial approval phases from the FDA. And soon we’ll have home testing kits, and that will really help when we get faced by another virus pandemic or this one.

ANDY SERWER: Sort of akin to those kids I guess is the fact that people can conduct CRISPR experiments with cheap equipment in their own garages, and you talked about some of these sort of punk rogue scientists in your book which was really pretty cool. But is this a recipe for innovation or disaster, Walter?

WALTER ISAACSON: Hey, you know, you tell me. We’ve gone through the digital age, where cyber hackers create things. We’ve gone through the digital age, where people create things in their garage, including Facebook, you know, including Google, created in garages or in dorm rooms. Now when it comes to people like Josiah Zayner and some of the biohackers, they remind me of people you and I remember who were like in the Electronic Frontier Foundation on the cutting edge of cyberspace. They were hackers.

Well these hackers are doing things, including Josiah Zayner hacked his own DNA vaccine for coronavirus. He hacked a use of CRISPR to suppress myostatin which is what regulates muscle growth. And you know, he shot itself in the arm with it to increase muscle growth in his body. He’s pretty scrawny. It didn’t fully kick in. But you know, these are the type of things. Now I think citizen science is actually a good thing. Most research scientists sort of flinch at these horrible things happening. But I think these are, like Steve Jobs would say, you know the crazy ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, they’re the ones who do.

ANDY SERWER: But what about regulations with regard to gene editing? Where do we stand with that, and what should Congress do, what should lawmakers do, Walter?

WALTER ISAACSON: Yeah, I think all of us– we shouldn’t just cede this to lawmakers and scientists– we all have to. That’s why I wrote this book. I mean this technology’s not that hard to figure out, but the moral questions will be a little hard to figure out. And they’re slippery slopes. You know, if you say, OK, let’s use it to fight sickle cell and Huntington’s, and then of course you’d say, well, maybe we could do it to fight memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

Once you do that, you can enhance memory, and you can decide to use it to give people super memories or give our children better memory. So each step you take is down a slope. But all slopes are slippery. The best way to navigate a slippery slope is to do it hand in hand, step by step, and that’s what I do in this book with Jennifer Doudna as a guide, but also so many other people that you know, from Michael Sandel, the ethicist at Harvard, to other scientists. We say, OK, what would you do in the case of Huntington’s? What would you do in the case of sickle cell? What would you do in the case of somebody wanting to be taller?

And I think we shouldn’t say that scientists will figure this out or politicians will. We should figure it out. By we I mean you, Andy Serwer, and me, and everybody listening. So we shouldn’t be intimidated by this science. We should say, OK, I get it. It’s pretty simple. You can just change genes in our genome. Now let me see what regulations we should have. And I would draw the line right now at let’s not do inheritable genetics for the time being until we know they’re absolutely safe.

ANDY SERWER: Do you know what’s going on with those daughters, those girls that were born in China and what their lives are like or how old they are at this point, Walter?

WALTER ISAACSON: Yeah they’re almost 2 and 1/2 years old. They’re being monitored. But we don’t know too much about them. We know that they had their genes edited as early stage embryos so that it would not– their cells would not have the receptor for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And we know that because the edits were made in a early stage embryo, it will affect not just them, but their children and all of their descendants. We also know that the experiment done by sort of a young Chinese doctor who was unauthorized really, was a bit of a mess. It’s– the scientific term is called mosaic, which means not all the cells in the body ended up having these edits, which means that it’s a little tricky, what happened to these kids.

That said, as far as we know, the kids are fine and healthy and growing up. And I do hope we’ll be able– I mean it’s a shame that they were used as experiments, but I do hope we study carefully and give them the care that they need.

ANDY SERWER: Wow. I should have asked you this when we were talking about companies, but I’ll do so now. Any big companies involved, Walter? Bill Gates I know invested in a gene editing company in 2015. Are the major pharmaceutical and medical companies in this space?

WALTER ISAACSON: Yes they are. But you know, if you look at the broader space, which is gene engineering in general and recombinant DNA and these things that happened in the 1970s, this began the biotech revolution. And of course Genentech is the really big one. And that was started after Paul Berg and Herbert Boyer and others figured out how do new organisms, recombinant DNA– how do you take the gene from one organism and put them into another? And if you look at the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the AstraZeneca Oxford vaccine, that’s what they do. It’s genetic engineering. And so Genentech is the best and biggest in this field.

But then you look at the New types of vaccines that we’re getting which don’t edit a full gene into a delivery system, they just take a tiny bit of RNA and put it into ourselves. What that does is the RNA, the most basic function of RNA is to act as a messenger. And it tells the manufacturing regions of our cell hey, build this protein. And in the case of a messenger RNA vaccine it says, build this little bit of the spike protein so if you ever get attacked by coronavirus your immune system is primed and ready for it. And so the two companies there are Biontech which really did the first one, and Moderna, which is just an amazing company based in Cambridge.

Biontech has partnered with Pfizer to do the vaccine. Moderna is the company I would look at. It mainly is doing messenger RNA, but that’s all in the family of using RNA as guides and messengers, and they’re going to be able to take on cancer and other things. And because they’re based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and so many other companies are there too because Boston has more research hospitals than any other place in the world I think per capita, and so Kendall Square is becoming the new Silicon Valley.

ANDY SERWER: You know, right, we always talked about how the gravitational shift went to Silicon Valley. Boston used to be a player but lost that, and maybe now it’s coming back a little bit when it comes to this endeavor, right?

WALTER ISAACSON: Yeah, I can remember back when route 128 in Boston had Digital Equipment Corporation and all. And Boston kind of messed it up, both by bad luck, you know, DEC didn’t do all that well, and by the fact that people went to Silicon Valley after Shockley and then Intel and all got created there. But you’re seeing a migration away from Silicon Valley for a long time now because of the creativity industries in hubs like Austin in Nashville and even down here in New Orleans being connected to digital innovation.

But now as we enter this new revolution, the biotech revolution, it’ll be places that have good research universities and good research hospitals. Boston for most, a lot of places like New York, and then also again, Nashville, here at Tulane University in New Orleans, Austin, Texas, doing quite well in these things.

ANDY SERWER: I want to ask more about tech a little bit. But first I want to do a little bit more about CRISPR and COVID and gene editing. In a Washington Post op-ed that you wrote recently you said that gene editing will allow us to move beyond vaccines altogether. What does that mean, and how soon can that be a reality?

WALTER ISAACSON: Yeah it’ll be a couple of years because the delivery mechanism is a little hard to get it into the right cells. But whether it’s the group in Cambridge, Mass with a technology called CARVER or the ones out in the Bay Area, those companies with the technology called PAC-MAN, what they do is that they use CRISPR not to stimulate the human immune system to fight the coronavirus or any virus, but to actually just kill the damn virus, which is direct.

Now, you might say, well, that’s ingenious. We should have thought of it. Yeah. Bacteria thought of it a billion years ago. That’s exactly what CRISPR is. It knows how to find a virus and cut it up by cutting its genetic code at a specific place. And so all this is, is adapting CRISPR, the system found in nature, not to edit our own genes but to kill viruses or bacteria or cancer cells or anything else that has the genetic code we want to target and we don’t like.

And the reason that’s important is vaccines have worked ever since Edward Jenner, you know, vaccinated his gardener’s kid against smallpox. They’ve work by stimulating the human immune system to kick itself up into a notch where it can fight the virus or the pathogen that it’s been primed to fight. Well, the human immune system is pretty good.

You know, I’ve gotten the Pfizer vaccine. I had a little bit of a reaction. My wife had a worse one. But the human immune system is also a little tricky, a little bit vulnerable. It’s a little bit complicated. It doesn’t have a whole lot of on-off switches. And so even though vaccines are great at enlisting our immune system, sometimes, as we know with COVID, it’s the immune system gone wild that’s a big problem. It’s not the virus.

So it will be cool, especially with Cas13. There’s– CRISPR has many different scissors, known as CRISPR associated enzymes or proteins, and Cas9 is the one that allows to edit DNA. But both at the Broad Institute and at Berkeley they figured out another pair of molecular scissors called Cas13 that actually attacks RNA. And so we’re not quite there yet, but these things have already been proven effective in the lab, and that’ll be a better way for us to fight not only viruses that attack us, by bypassing our immune system and just killing the viruses, but the bacteria that attack us, the cancer cells that attack us. And this will bring in– and they’ll easily reprogram.

That’s something we should say too, Andy. Which is, you know these are just, once you know genetic coding, which isn’t all that more difficult than Python or JavaScript or something, you can say, OK there are four letters. I’m going to encode this. I’m going to find a new way to make a vaccine for the variant. And that takes a day or two of recoding. Likewise, I’m going to make a new pair of scissors for CARVER or PAC-MAN, and that– we can just recode it.

ANDY SERWER: How concerned are you, Walter, and how concerned are the scientists about unforeseen consequences? There’s something we just don’t even understand with all this gene editing and CRISPR and all of a sudden we’ll create something that spins out of control that’s incredibly damaging to the human race?

WALTER ISAACSON: Yeah, well a couple of things. You got to be careful. There’s always unintended consequences. Even the Chinese scientist who takes out the receptor for HIV, that could mess up an ability to fight malaria or West Nile disease. So you got to be careful of unintended consequences. But then though even more dangerous thing is either a malevolent player, a bad nation, a rogue actor saying, OK, I’m going to use CRISPR– and you don’t have to do it in humans, you can say I’m going to use CRISPR to make gene drive mosquitoes. By gene drive I mean it goes through the entire population of mosquitoes. And that’ll be a good thing because we’ll kill off all the mosquitoes that are carrying malaria, or whatever it may be.

Well, when you unleash a species like that onto the planet this is not a smart idea. Now the Defense Department and DARPA, its research agency, have funded a lot of things, including at the Broad Institute at MIT Harvard and at Berkeley, where Jennifer Doudna the main character of my book is, to create many defense weapons, anti weapons against it, including something called anti CRISPR. Which means, all right, if somebody makes a mistake we need a tool to reverse it. But that’s why we should be really careful, especially on doing inherited gene edits, whether that be on humans or on mosquitoes, because we have to be absolutely sure what the unintended consequences are, and we have to be pretty sure we have a way to reverse the process if we make a mistake.

ANDY SERWER: A significant portion of the US population says it will refuse to take a COVID-19 vaccine. What do you think Americans will say about gene editing? What is the general population’s take going to be?

WALTER ISAACSON: I think, a lot of people are afraid of science when they don’t fully understand it, when it seems mysterious. Like, what are they doing with RNA in my cells? And I think when you demystify science people become more comfortable with it. It’s true of everything. And I think it’s very good that people have their own strong opinion. There are people who don’t like GMOs. That’s fine. But I think it’s also useful to note what is a genetically modified organism. And by the way, in my book, what did the yogurt makers figure out about modifying organisms?

Likewise, there are people who are going to say, I’m against gene editing. Well at least I hope they read the book so they know what a gene is. And they’re probably right, there’s types of gene editing we should resist. That said, we should understand it first and realize, and this is why I write this book, if you make science less mysterious then people will feel more comfortable with it. And I blame the scientists sometimes. They’re a priesthood. They don’t talk very easily about what they’re doing. But when it comes to vaccines, you know, I think– what are we seeing, maybe 20% of the people say they aren’t going to use them in the long run?

I suspect it’ll go down, and that after a while 90% of the people will be willing to be vaccinated, which will get us where we need to go. But I suspect also that the more that they know about RNA, which seems like a mysterious thing but it’s a very simple little molecule– if you know that you’re not actually having the vaccine create the virus in your system, it’s just creating a tiny bit of protein that mimics that spike protein of the coronavirus, then you say to yourself, well, that’s not dangerous. And indeed it’s not dangerous.

ANDY SERWER: Let’s shift away from CRISPR and COVID and Jennifer Doudna for a second. I want to ask you about Steve Jobs and Apple and tech. Your book on Steve Jobs came out 10 years ago. It’s hard to believe. And since then the world has changed. There’s been a major backlash against big tech companies. Has this changed the way you think about Apple, and whether or not tech is a force for good?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well I think we always have to worry about whether or not tech is a force for good. I think Apple actually is in general because it’s both protecting our privacy and it’s not basing its entire business model on the advertising model, which means harvesting all of your information and microtargeting things to you. I don’t mind targeted advertising, but I think it can be very dangerous when it comes especially to political and advocacy ads. Secondly I think places like Facebook and Twitter and other places that have algorithms that tend to incent people to get enraged and pass along misinformation, I think that is something that platforms like that should take more responsibility for.

As for Apple, I kind of, we all miss Steve Jobs. I’d love to see what he would have done with TV or many other things, you know whole new product lines. But he was very careful in making sure that people had control of their technology instead of the technology having control of them. And he’s a model to me of how people should approach the digital age. I worry more about– and that’s why he wasn’t that comfortable with social media and social networks. He never really created one at Apple. I think those are the dangerous things is the algorithms that spin us out of control and just push us to be more and more extreme in our behavior.

Even when I go on Facebook or Twitter or something it’s always recommending as soon as I read somebody of a particular political bent, it’s trying to get me more outraged about somebody who has an even stronger opinion. Those type of things come when you have an advertising model with an algorithm that’s based on what’s called engagement. But it really should be called enragement.

ANDY SERWER: Don’t have that much time left. I want to get your take on two other very high profile leaders in Silicon Valley, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. What’s your take on those two?

WALTER ISAACSON: I’m just reading some books on Elon Musk, and of course in some ways he’s a Steve Jobs of our time. He’s you know crazy enough to think he can change the world, and thus he might be one of the ones who do change the world. I think we’re still, as they said in Latin School, in media res, which means we’re in the middle of the story. I don’t quite know exactly. SpaceX and the S model Tesla and all seem to be doing quite well, but like Steve Jobs, he has, you know full well he’s skating on the edge. And Steve got ousted at one point. So I think he’s doing really well. And I love the fact that he’s a man of passion and obsession.

Likewise you know, Bezos has just continually triumphed. I’ll tell a story real quick about your mentor and mine, a guy named Don Logan, who ran Time Inc. And in 1999 we at Time– you were over at Fortune at the time– were making Bezos person of the year. And all of a sudden the air started going out of the internet stocks, and I said to Don Logan, who was president, I said, are we making a mistake making Bezos man of the year? He said no, Bezos is not in the internet business. He’s in the customer service business. He’ll be doing fine 20 years from now. And Bezos has kept a relentless focus on customer, and that really matters.

ANDY SERWER: I didn’t know that Don Logan story, Walter. That’s great. Final question. How do you choose the subjects of your books? On the one hand they’re kind of obvious. On the other hand, maybe not so much. Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Jennifer Doudna now the first woman you’ve written about– how do you make those decisions?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well you notice they’re all smart people. But after a while having been in journalism, I figured out that smart people are a dime a dozen, and they don’t usually amount to much. What matters is being creative and imaginative and making those leaps that are innovative. And so my books are about how does creativity happen? How does innovation happen? So I look for people like Steve Jobs or Einstein or certainly Leonardo da Vinci or Jennifer Doudna now, who make those mental leaps and think out of the box, who are driven by pure curiosity as Jennifer Doudna was, looking at how these bacteria have clustered repeats in their DNA called CRISPR, and what can we do with them. And boom, after figuring out what that was all about, saying, I get it. I can make this into an editing tool for our own genes.

So who makes that imaginative leap? And I try to show that. And in this case, having done digital technology with Steve Jobs and the physics revolution with Einstein, I wanted to do the life sciences revolution, and Jennifer Doudna has done everything from help figure out the structure of RNA, which is a miracle molecule we’ve been talking about, to figuring out gene editing tools, and now wrestling with when should we use them and when should we not use them?

ANDY SERWER: And just one quick follow up, Walter. What do you think your legacy will be? Time Inc., CNN, Aspen Institute, author, history professor, all those things. What does that add up to?

WALTER ISAACSON: A guest on the Andy Serwer Show. You know, I don’t– those of us who write about people in the arena shouldn’t fall prey to the arrogance that we too are in the arena. You know, we’re doing our small part, which is to show how great, smart, innovative, creative people work. And I think even popularizing how science works has a role to play. But we who do that, I think we do enough of a service but we shouldn’t elevate ourselves to say we’re in any way comparable to the people who actually are in the arena making those discoveries like Jennifer Doudna.

ANDY SERWER: Fair enough. Walter Isaacson, bestselling author among other things of the new book “Code Breaker, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.” Walter, thank you so much.

WALTER ISAACSON: Always good being with you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: You’ve been watching “Influencers.” I’m Andy Serwer. We’ll see you next time.

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