A French microbiologist and an American biochemist have been named joint winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work creating a tool that edits DNA.
Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier, the director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, and Dr Jennifer A. Doudna, a biochemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, are just the sixth and seventh women to win the award. Men have won 179 times in the past.
But this year’s prize is historic, in that it’s the first time two women have received it in the same year.
“I’m over the moon, I’m in shock,” Dr Doudna said at a news conference on Wednesday, when the announcement was made in Sweden. The 56-year old said she was “really sound asleep” when a reporter from Nature journal called her to break the news.
“It’s something you hear, but you don’t completely connect,” she said.
“We as a community need to make sure we recognise we are taking charge of a very powerful technology and I hope this announcement galvanizes that intention.”
On Wednesday, Dr Charpentier said that she hoped the win will set a “positive message to the young girls who would like to follow the path of science, and show them that women in science can also have an impact through the research that they are performing.”
It’s general (and depressing) knowledge that women make up a small percentage of science laureates. Scientists who have been racialized, especially Black, Latino, Native or Indigenous people, are almost completely absent from the Nobel science prizes.
Goran K. Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said the 2020 Prize was “about rewriting the code of life.”
Upon receiving the Prize, Dr Doudna spoke of the “collaborative spirit” that has driven much of her work with the discoveries she and her colleagues have made. She also recognised the many scientists who have contributed to advancing the research in the field.
“None of us go into science, or at least I didn’t, to win prizes,” she said. “We went in because we wanted to understand something true about nature.”
“In any prize, in any work of science, there are many people who contribute along the way, and that’s certainly true in the case of Crispr.”
Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, noted in a press release the “enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.”
The Crispr Technology
Dr Charpentier spent several years studying a species of bacteria called the Streptococcus pyogenes – a type that causes scarlet fever among other diseases.
In 2006, while analysing the microbe’s DNA, she and her colleagues discovered a unique series of repeating segments. This moved her closer to discovering the technology that would bring her to Dr Doudna, and to Crispr.
When the pair examined the immune system of a Streptococcus bacterium, they found a molecular tool that could be used to create incisions in genetic material. They met for the first time in Puerto Rico in 2011 while attending a scientific conference and immediately started to collaborate on Crispr.
Crispr allows scientists to change the DNA of animals, plants and micro-organisms, and has so far revolutionised the molecular life sciences, bringing new opportunities for plant breeding, contributing to innovative cancer therapies, and potentially paving the way for curing inherited diseases.
Dr Doudna and Dr Charpentier recreated the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplified their molecular components so they were easier to use.
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Heard of gene-editing? Emmanuelle Charpentier and I (I am Jennifer Doudna) were studying the system bacteria use to defend themselves against viruses. We accidentally noticed that the system bacteria use to shut down viruses always targeted specefic sections of virus DNA – with the correct programming, the system could seek out any section of DNA and slice it up. Also, if the system had other coding material with it, it could replace one section of DNA with another. Defending itself against an invading virus’ DNA, a bacteria produces 2 short RNA that match the incoming virus DNA. They form a complex with a protein called CAS-9, a type of enzyme that can cut DNA. After realizing CAS-9 can be used to cut any strand of DNA by changing the 2 short RNA to match whatever DNA is desired, the possibility of gene-editing with CRISPR CAS-9 was born. #accidentaldiscoveries
Eight years ago, the pair co-authored their first paper on Crispr, revealing that they had found a way to harness the RNA molecules to alter DNA. They discovered they could combine a piece of RNA that targeted and spliced genes. The Crispr gene editing tools make it possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks, previously a time-consuming and challenging process. Doctors have been testing the tool as a cure for genetic disorders such as sickle cell disease and hereditary blindness and plant scientists are wielding it to create new crops.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told the NYTimes that tool has “utterly transformed the way we do research in basic science,” and that he was “thrilled to see Crispr getting the recognition we have all been waiting for, and seeing two women being recognised as Nobel Laureates.”
Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust, told the Science Media Centre that the pair had “devised an unprecedentedly powerful and precise means of changing DNA sequences in living cells.”
“There is still vast potential for Crispr to bring further benefit to humanity, provided that it is used in diligent and well-regulated way,” Norcross added.
Charpentier and Doudna’s Nobel recognition has come relatively quickly, according David Pendlebury, a senior citation analyst at Clarivate Analytics, an analytics company. “Most Nobel Prizes are based on research achieved two, three, or more decades ago,” he said, also noting that their 2012 research findings has already received more than 6,000 citations.
Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, told the Science Media Centre that the tool has been “transformative.”
“The ability to edit genes provides an incredible toolkit for scientific research that will benefit humankind for generations to come, from fighting and preventing diseases to feeding our growing global population,” he said.
“I am also hugely pleased to see that the Nobel committee has chosen to honour two leading women in active research — their teamwork is an example of how scientific breakthroughs are based on a truly global community of researchers and they can become role models for aspiring scientists of all genders.”
Ethical concerns around the Crispr technology has stirred in the science community for a number of years, due to its potential to change human heredity.
In 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui claimed that he had used the technology to alter the genes of human embryos, which produced the world’s first genetically modified babies.
He Jiankui’s experiments were condemned in the scientific community as irresponsible and dangerous. The experiment was labeled “monstrous”, “premature” and “unethical” by many experts across the world. He Jiankui was subsequently sentenced to three years in jail for producing twins who were born with modified DNA to make them resistant to HIV.
Dr Charpentier and Dr Doudna have recognised the potential dangers of the technology, with the latter co-writing a book, “A Crack in Creation” to explain both the its positive potential and contentious risks.
Dr John Parrington, a lecturer in Cellular & Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Oxford, said that while a number of other scientists have made important contributions to this discovery, there was “no doubt” that Doudna and Charpentier played a key role in understanding the Crispr mechanism, and how it might be developed as a genome editing tool.
He added that Crispr “has immense potential to transform our lives for the better but also raises many ethical and socio-political questions.”
Last month, the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing, which spent years reviewing the scientific literature on Crispr, concluded that the technology was not mature enough to use for the alteration of human embryos. But the committee did not completely abandon the possibility that the tool can one day be used to repair life-threatening mutations.
The Crispr technology is also embroiled in a long-running patent fight. Nine years ago, Feng Zhang, a biologist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, heard of Crispr and immediately saw the potential it as a gene-editing tool.
As Dr Charpentier and Dr Doudna published their research on editing bacteria, Zhang’s team went ahead with their experiments on human cells, publishing their findings in 2012. Dr. Doudna’s team also published their own findings, and soon, both parties filed for patents on Crispr. The dispute ended up in court, where Zhang’s team won many of the legal matters, though the matter is still yet to be resolved.
Dr Charpentier and Dr Doudna will split the prize of 10 million Swedish kronor ( AUD$1,578,335)