Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014–…): Season 5, Episode 17 - Gene Editing - full transcript

'Gene Editing' is a very fascinating field. It has enormous potential to improve the human life. While many scientists are extremely cautious about their experiments, there are also some ...

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Welcome to Last Week Tonight.

I'm John Oliver.
Thank you for joining us.

A quick recap of the week,
a week which saw the president,

a man who claims he speaks
for the forgotten working class,

managed to get an applause line
in a speech from this.

We got more money, brains,
better houses, apartments,

we got nicer boats,
we're smarter than they are.

And they say the elite.
We're the elite. You're the elite.

"We have nicer boats
than they do."

Aside from the fact he's delivering
that speech in Fargo, North Dakota,

which is landlocked, that is
a weird message for a populist.

It's like running as a socialist
under the slogan:

"the workers are parasites !
Sponsored by Pringles."

The biggest and most historic news
this week came on Wednesday.

Tonight the biggest change for
the Supreme Court in half a century.

Swing Justice, Anthony Kennedy,
announcing his retirement

giving Trump another seat to fill
and conservatives a shot

at dominating the highest court
for years.

This is huge news and for anyone
who believes that the Constitution

protects things like reproductive
and LGBT rights: this is bad.

We know it's bad because
Donald Trump Jr. was happy,

tweeting: "OMG ! Just when you thought
this week couldn't get more lit..."

"I give you Anthony Kennedy's
retirement from hashtag SCOTUS."

I'm going to have to disagree
with Mr. Junior on this.

I don't think this was lit at all.
It's obvs cray a-f,

no one is denying that, fam.

This week's news was neither lit nor
on fleek. Nor was it three fire emojis.

Now, granted, I am still
a little shook, j-s-y-k.

I believe Kennedy's
retirement is super werpt.

I'm happy to announce that
all the slang words I just used

are now officially dead forever.

That includes "werpt"
a term that doesn't even exist,

but which I have preemptively
ruined just in case.

Teens: don't let white men in
their 40s hear the cool words you use.

We will bury them.

The big question here is:
who is going to replace Kennedy ?

Administration made their plans
clear, Mike Pence tweeting:

"thank you to Justice Anthony Kennedy
for your long career of service,"

"Trump will nominate a strong
conservative in tradition of Scalia".

You don't generally stand up
at someone's retirement party

and say: "thank you for everything
you did for this company, Robert,"

"we will replace you with someone
like that other guy who work here"

"that we always liked
much more than you."

Trump has a list of nominees assembled
with Conservative Federalist Society,

whose vice president seems
confident in their choices.

- A leading contender for you ?
- No, there's not.

- Really not ?
- No, the list is really good.

They're not in order ?
You're just saying anyone.

You can throw a dart at that list
and you'd be fine.

That will be this president's
entire decision-making process.

There's also a non-zero chance
he could hit Pence and call it a day.

It is understandable that Democrats
are trying to game out arguments

that would let them
delay Trump's nomination.

They've appealed to Mitch McConnell's
sense of fairness and consistency,

by pointing out that he refused
to confirm Merrick Garland.

McConnell couldn't give a flying
fuck about fairness or consistency.

Some Democrats have now been
forced to move on to plan B.

The President of the US is a subject
of an ongoing criminal investigation,

an investigation that could end up
before the Supreme Court.

I do not believe that this committee
should or can in good conscience

consider a nominee put forward
until that investigation is concluded.

A fundamental problem: Republicans
have 51 seats in the Senate

and they need 51 votes
to confirm the new Justice.

Unless Democrats can convince their
party to oppose the nomination

and persuade a number of Republicans
to their side, they're out of luck.

for Democrats' favorite game:

Hope ! Susan ! Collins ! Flips !
And ! Be ! Disappointed !

When ! She ! Doesn't !

It's America's most depressing
game show.

The consequences here will
certainly be extremely grim.

Watch CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin
seemingly visit every show on CNN

to do whatever
the opposite of sugarcoating is.

Roe v. Wade is doomed, it is gone
because Donald Trump won the election.

Abortion will be illegal in
a significant part of the US soon.

All this fantasy talk about:
Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned.

It's gonna be overturned !

Roe v. Wade is going to disappear.
It arrived in 1973 and it will die.

I heard you say earlier that
within eighteen months,

that abortion could be illegal
in as many as 20 states.

No, I said abortion will be illegal
in as many as twenty states.

Roe v. Wade is dead today.

I would not want to hear Toobin tell
his daughter their dog passed away.

Sweetheart, Baxter
was taken to a farm upstate.

And then shot in the face.
He's dead now. He's dead.

He's got no face anymore.

There is actually
some good news.

There is a constitutional loophole
that allows Democrats to...

I'm obviously lying. There is no good
news here. Everything is terrible now.

Barring some massive screw up
from Trump,

the only thing anyone
can do now is vote.

There are actually two key elections
you should try and vote in:

one in 2016 and one in 2014,
that is what got us into this mess.

Find a medium-sized
cardboard box right now.

Take a pen and write "time machine"
on the side of it.

Not because it'll take you backwards
in time, it's a cardboard box.

I want you to scream into it.

Empty all the anger and frustration
into that box.

Tape it up, go out, vote, knock
on doors and take that box with you.

If you come across someone who
is thinking of sitting out,

because neither of the candidates
quite do it for them,

open that box
into their fucking face

and let yourself from this week
scream some sense into them.

And now, this.

For Canada Day, the most
Canadian thing imaginable:

polite interactions
between professional curlers

at the 2018
Tim Horton's National Championship.

- Do you like this better or this ?
- I think the back one.

Bumper. We played this shot
a few ends ago ?

Yeah, I did.

I've only got four-fifths.

- What ?
- I don't have all the rock.

- You don't have all of it ?
- Nope.

Decent chance
we're gonna lose that, but...

What's that ?

Said decent chance
we're gonna lose that, but...

Do you wanna just play it soft
and down to it and bump it ?

Well or we could play like hack ?

I'm good with hack.

Moving on. Our main story tonight
concerns science.

Math disguised as dinosaurs and
outer-space to seem interesting.

This story concerns gene editing.
A topic you may have heard about,

it's now a plot point
in action movies like "Rampage".

What's happening to my friend ?

Are you familiar
with "genetic editing" ?

Changes will be
incredibly unpredictable.

Is he the only one ?

Didn't know
about the thirty-foot wolf ?

Incoming !

Wait just a second there.
Let me get this straight:

this is a movie about aerial military
equipment being harnessed

to fight a 30-foot wolf and
it is not called "Wolf Blitzer" ?

That is a huge missed opportunity.
That's movie malpractice there.

Gene editing isn't only showing up

in movies starring
Rock "The Dwayne" Johnson.

It's brought up on TV, with varying
degrees of excitement or alarm.

A stunning and controversial
breakthrough: gene editing.

This is a milestone that could
one day erase hereditary conditions.

Some fear the technology could be
used to create "designer babies".

This technology has the potential
to change our DNA

and the DNA of all organisms
alive and extinct.

Could that lead to eugenics ? Could
that lead to new divides in humanity ?

I don't know,
that stuff's scary.

Exactly, it seems gene editing
is either going to cure all disease

or kill every last one of us.

Anytime there is a bold new technology,
people do tend to go nuts.

After the invention of the refrigerator
there were a rash of headlines like:

"Can Meat Be Too Cold ?"

and "What About Milkman, America's
Friendly Neighborhood Weirdo ?"

We thought we'd talk
about gene editing:

what its potential could be
and what the chances are

that we're all gonna be killed
by a thirty-foot wolf.

Let's start with the fact
that gene editing isn't new,

there have been technologies
like these around for years.

What is new and what is driving
a lot of recent coverage is "CRISPR",

which stands for "Crunchy Rectums
In Sassy Pink Ray-Bans."

Except it doesn't, it stands for this.
But you won't remember that

so let's go back
to the crunchy rectum thing.

CRISPR is complicated. One of the key
scientists who unlocked its potential,

Jennifer Doudna, has a simple
way of explaining how it works.

I like to use the analogy
of word processing.

You think of the DNA code
like the text of a document,

this is the scissors,
it allows you to cut out text,

the cell takes over
after the DNA is broken

and makes a precise change
at the site of the repair.

Right that is very basically it:
like cut-and-paste in Microsoft Word:

if there's something that you want
to fix on DNA, with CRISPR,

you could theoretically find it,
cut it out, and paste in a fix,

at which point
Clippy shows up and says:

"You're trying to play God and alter
the basic building blocks of life !"

"Need some help?"

CRISPR's potential is huge, there
are hopes that it might be applied

to more than 10 000 conditions,
from sickle-cell anemia

to cystic fibrosis to some cases
of early-onset Alzheimer's.

Gene editing is wildly difficult.
Diseases have multiple genes.

Human trials have been rare, although
there have been promising results.

Just months ago baby Layla was dying
of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Doctors agreed to try out an
experimental immune-cell therapy,

which had never been used
outside the lab.

The result astounded her parents.

I took the gamble and this
is her today standing, laughing.

It's a miracle.

That's fantastic and he's right,
it is a miracle.

Except when you think about it,
it's science.

Is better and
more convenient than a miracle.

You don't have to spend the next 2 000
years worshipping the scientists.

You can just be like: "thanks".

While that is a truly amazing story,
for the most part,

applications have been confined
to experiments on plants and animals.

Results have been
striking, if often weird.

Researchers at this lab used CRISPR
to isolate and manipulate

the beagle's muscle,
or myostatin gene,

making these the most
muscular beagles in the world.

Okay, all right...

You might think it's strange that
scientists made jacked, sexy beagles.

Did you consider that the scientists
were lady beagles ?

Change your preconceptions
about what a scientist can be.

Hashtag beagle feminism.
Hashtag sciencebitches.

It's not just beefcake beagles.

Scientists are researching ways
to fight human diseases using mice.

While scientists know how painstakingly
slow this kind of research is,

it is tempting for the rest of us
to start racing ahead,

speculating about
where this is all going.

Could CRISPR give us unicorns ?

We're getting creative now.
There are examples of animals

that have single horns in the middle
so like the rhinoceros has one,

but there are ancient rhinoceroses
that have it in the middle of the head,

so you could get a single horn
on a horse

by looking at horns in other species.

- It's in the realm of possibility ?
- Yes.

Judging by all the hedging
he just did in that answer,

even if we do create a unicorn,
it's not gonna be this majestic creature

who wants you to follow it
into a magic waterfall.

It'll be more like this:
a monster that would beg:

"please kill me, end this.
End this madness now."

For a good sense of the mismatch
between expectation and capabilities,

look at a project that that scientist
is working on right now:

bringing back
the woolly mammoth.

It has been hyped in
headlines all over the world.

They are nowhere close
to creating a living animal yet,

computer simulations
are underwhelming.

In the lab they've edited about
35 functioning woolly mammoth genes

into the Asian elephant genome.

This is a good start for making
a semi-woolly mammoth.

Yeah, that's not
a woolly mammoth though.

That's just a "wrong elephant".

It's not so much "Jurassic Park" as
an off-brand three-dollar petting zoo

called "pet the whatever".

You may have noticed you're not
just seeing professional scientists.

That's because the underlying
technology of CRISPR is so cheap,

almost anyone can use it.

Gene-editing stories almost
always feature a detour

to meet biohackers
like Josiah Zayner.

Here in the Bay Area, we're visiting
a biohacker in his garage.

He's selling DIY CRISPR kits
for a couple of hundred dollars.

You can buy this cutting-edge kit
that allows you to use this technology.

You don't need a PhD and
you could do experiments

with CRISPR like that
I think is really cool.

That sounds revolutionary,
but selling strangers things

covered in unfamiliar DNA out
of your garage already has a name

and it's "every single garage
sale in human history."

I would like to buy your lamp,
I'm going to take it home and wash it.

He is selling chemistry sets.
And to the extent

that they get people excited about
science, that's a good thing.

You can see why scientists
get frustrated when biohackers

hog all the media attention,

especially because he makes
wild statements, like:

I want to live in a world where people
get drunk and instead of tattoos,

they're like, "I'm drunk, I'm
going to CRISPR myself."

Which is a terrible idea.

You shouldn't even get drunk
and tattoo yourself,

however cool "Robert Duvall's face
covering your midriff" seems.

I'm just saying
I have some regrets.

Last October, Zayner publicly
injected himself

with DNA modified using CRISPR, to try
and give himself bigger muscles.

Which did not work.
But in that same video,

he argued that using CRISPR should
ideally be like downloading an app.

You don't have to know
what the app does, how it works.

That's how it should be with genetic
engineering and synthetic biology.

Why can't people use this technology
without knowing how it works ?

I can answer that one for you:

because it could be dangerous,
and someone could get hurt.

I refuse to take scientific insights

from someone shooting vertical footage
on an iPhone.

That is unforgivable,
that is disqualifying immediately.

Though Zayner now says
he regrets that experiment,

that kind of behavior is a real
worry for serious scientists,

not just that a biohacker
will hurt themselves,

but that doctors or scientists
might rush a human application

before it's ready, things go wrong
and the whole field is set back years.

That happened to the field
of gene therapy,

when Jesse Gelsinger died
during a poorly-designed trial.

That's not the only thing
scientists worry about,

the benefits and the drawbacks
of gene editing

can extend well beyond one person.

To understand why,
be familiar with a key distinction.

Somatic cells are most
of the cells in the body:

blood, brain, skin cells, where the DNA
doesn't get passed down to offspring.

Germline edits involve sperm,
eggs or embryos,

changing the DNA
of future generations.

somatic cells die with you,

germline cells get passed down
through generations.

Much of what you've seen,
like Baby Layla or Zayner's experiment,

involved somatic cells.

While germline cells are how
my great grandfather passed this nose

down to me, when he fucked this bird,
Great-Grandma Feathers.

She loved bells.

Germline editing could potentially
do incredible things.

Take malaria: nearly half a million
people each year die from it

and it's spread by mosquitos.

Gene editing could help stop that,
through a "gene drive".

Scientists insert an artificial gene
into the DNA of mosquito embryos

that will make an increasing
proportion of female offspring sterile.

The gene drive is embedded
in the DNA

to ensure
the changes are inherited,

unlike natural evolution
where chance is involved.

That's brilliant. And much simpler
than my idea to fight malaria,

by fitting millions of mosquitoes
with tiny condoms.

The moment you cross into germline
editing, the ramifications increase,

messing with any ecosystem
can have unintended consequences.

This has always been true,
even before gene editing

and my favorite example
comes from Australia,

where about 100 cane toads
were introduced in the 1930s

to control the cane beetle.

They didn't do that.
What they did do was multiply

to hundreds of millions of cane toads
and wreaked absolute havoc.

Australians hate these things.
There was even a documentary made,

featuring a guy who made it his life's
work to run over as many as he could.

I line them up with
the driver's side front wheel.

I seem to be able to get most
I line up on the right-hand side.

I really go out of my way to run
over cane toads basically

because I have a very profound love
of the wildlife that occurs naturally.

If it was possible to remove them and
totally eradicate them from Australia

and I was capable of doing it,
I would spend a lot of time doing that.

He is in for an unpleasant surprise
when he gets to the pearly gates

and finds out that God
is an Australian cane toad.

So, you'd like to get
into heaven ?

Why don't we go ahead
and take a look at the tapes.

Ecosystems are delicate, which is why
you need to be extremely careful.

A good example of someone taking
that sort of care with gene editing

can be seen in a project on Nantucket
Island, as a way to fight Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is passed
from ticks to humans,

but before that can happen,
it goes from mice to ticks.

The way that works is like this:
a mouse goes through a tough breakup.

A relationship the mouse
didn't want to end

and leaves it questioning
its self-worth.

He goes on rebound dates
that only deepen the disillusionment.

"Could anyone love me ?".
Turns to alcohol to numb the pain.

While drunk, it comes across
a Tinder profile of a tick.

At first the mouse is disgusted,
but then it's intrigued.

"God," it thinks,
"am I really going to fuck a tick ?"

The mouse goes on the date thinking:
"it's just a date, we're just talking."

As soon as the tick says:

"maybe we should go some place
quiet where we can talk..."

They're banging in the shower.

The mouse feels strangely satisfied.
It feels desirable again.

As for the tick, it can't wait to brag
that it just fucked a mouse !

They both forget the encounter
until eight months later,

when the tick gets a call:
bad news, you got Lyme disease !

And that is how Lyme disease
spreads from mice to ticks.

Sometimes. Other times,
the tick bites the mouse.

To prevent the spread of Lyme disease,
a biologist named Kevin Esvelt

is considering introducing
genetically-edited mice

that cannot pass
the disease to ticks.

And he would do this with caution,
testing it on an uninhabited island,

where the experiment
will be contained.

It would only go forward on Nantucket
if he got the buy-in of the locals.

Even with all those safeguards,
he's aware of the uncertainty.

Although Kevin Esvelt is confident
his engineered mice

will only reduce Lyme disease and
not bring harm to ecosystems,

he also knows that absolute certainty
and genetic engineering

do not go together.

I worry I might be missing
something profound

about the consequences
of what we're developing.

Good ! I'm glad you do.

That is the caution that you want
from someone in his position.

He doesn't want
to end up in a limerick that goes:

There once was a man from Nantucket,
Who gathered some mice in a bucket.

He altered those mice engineered,
And now all of the seagulls are dead.

There aren't just practical
considerations to germline editing,

there are huge moral questions, too,
when it comes to humans.

It raises the possibility
that gene editing could one day be used

not just to fight disease,
but for so-called "enhancement",

which sails you into some
pretty dicey territory.

Even Jennifer Doudna,
one of the pioneers of CRISPR,

sees the danger of this.

Here she is, telling the story
of a dream that she once had

that was pretty on-the-nose.

I walked into a room and
a colleague of mine said to me:

"I'd like you to explain
the CRISPR technology to a friend."

And he brought me into a room

and a person was sitting
with their back to me.

As they turned around I realized
with horror that it was Hitler.

It was Hitler with sort of a pig nose
and it almost looked like

a chimeric pig-human
sort of creature.

She had a dream about pig Hitler
wanting to learn more about CRISPR.

Ethical reservations aside,
she might also want to examine

why her subconscious
thinks her colleague

is "casually friends with Hitler".

The more control people have over
the ability to design their children,

the bigger the moral
questions that raises,

up to and including who decides
what constitutes a genetic problem

that needs to be "fixed".

Is deafness a disease ?

Many in the deaf community
would say it is not.

Is dwarfism a disease ?
Many would say not.

The idea that we're all sick,
that I "suffer" from dwarfism...

I live with dwarfism. I've lived
with dwarfism for 39 years.

I am proud to be a second generation
raising a third generation of people

living with dwarfism,
I suffer from how society treats me.

Exactly. And there are many groups
who could justifiably worry

that the thing that makes
them unique or different,

could come to be seen
as flaws to be corrected.

Eugenics is a word
that rightly terrifies people.

It's why it was such a mistake
for Eugene Levy to make that

the title of his autobiography.

It's a shame. It was a lovely book. He
had great Catherine O'Hara anecdotes.

But that title really dusted you off.

Here is the thing: germline-edited,

designer CRISPR babies
are still a distant hypothetical.

No human has been born that has
had its germline edited yet.

Many countries have bans
or restrictions on that.

One place with very few restrictions
is China, which in general,

seems eager to push
the limits of gene editing.

One of the scientists
working at that jacked beagle lab

seems to brush off
certain ethical issues.

CRISPR puts so much power
into our hands.

It allows us to shape our world
in ways never before imagined.

There are many people in the U.S.
who think:

that's not for us to do, that's
for a higher power, that's for God.

So the idea that we could be
playing the role of God

makes a lot of people nervous.

- Clearly not here though !
- Yeah, not here.

That guy seems blasé
about gene-editing technology.

in a country whose president,

as you may remember,
is a honey-eating talking bear.

The resemblance is striking.
I don't know which is which.

My point here in showing you
all of this isn't to frighten you,

there is a lot to be legitimately
excited about here.

Gene editing has potential to alleviate
a great deal of human suffering.

But reaching that potential
will require careful research,

the science involved is much
more complicated

than we've had time to get into,
mainly because we needed

to make space for that long story
about a tick fucking a mouse

and I stand by that decision.

While that research is progressing,
we need to figure out how to balance

the risks and potential rewards
of gene editing.

Everything that's being done
tends to get mixed together.

Meticulous, professional scientists
with freewheeling biohackers,

practical applications
with wild theories,

best-case scenarios with catastrophic
prophecies of thirty-foot wolves.

But we are going to need to sort
out where lines should be drawn.

While gene editing could do incredible
things for our health,

let's try and avoid a future where
we end up swerving all over the road,

trying to run over all of the pig
Hitlers we accidentally created.

And now, this.

Guys, what the fuck's going on
with animals in Florida ?

One of those where else
but in Florida stories.

Passengers from Boston were
welcomed by an alligator on the tarmac.

Wild boars are getting bold.

- A cobra's on the loose.
- Wild monkeys are on the loose.

Pet monkey attack
at a Home Depot.

An alligator found itself inside
a local furniture store.

The three-foot gator inside a Wawa.

Three sightings of the large
lizards in just the last year.

I've never ran
into an iguana that big.

Bear biting incident.

- Bobcat strolled into a home.
- A bobcat caught a shark.

Wild horse
attacked a large alligator.

- Python versus alligator.
- Two alligators go head to head.

Police still have a lot of questions
about a swan attack.

A dog and a swan
got into a battle.

It's good to watch the beauty
of these swans, from afar.

That's our show. We're off for the next
few weeks. Back July 29th. Good night !