‘Women rock’: Doudna, Charpentier win Nobel for gene-editing tool

Two scientists recognised for their work on revolutionary tool that provides way to alter DNA.

French researcher in microbiology, genetics and biochemistry Emmanuelle Charpentier and US professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology Jennifer Doudna become the sixth and seventh women to win Nobel Prize for chemistry [File: Miguel Riopa/AFP]

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of a method for genome editing that has revolutionised science by providing a way to alter DNA.

Charpentier, who is French, and Doudna, an American, become the sixth and seventh women to win a Nobel Prize for chemistry, joining Marie Curie (1911) and, more recently, Frances Arnold (2018). They are the first women ever to be awarded the prize together.

“Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A Doudna have discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement on Wednesday as they announced the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.1m) prize.

“This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.”

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

“It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.”

More than 100 clinical trials are currently underway on the use of CRISPR to treat inherited diseases.

The tool provides “new hope and possibility to our society,” Doudna, who is on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement on the university’s website. “What started as a curiosity‐driven, fundamental discovery project has now become the breakthrough strategy used by countless researchers working to help improve the human condition.”

Charpentier, 51, is the Founding, Scientific and Managing Director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin.

Gustafsson said the tool meant any genome could be edited “to fix genetic damage”, but cautioned that the “enormous power of this technology means we have to use it with great care”.

Gene-editing babies

Two years ago, the Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies – trying to engineer resistance to HIV infection – in a case that highlighted concerns that the CRISPR tool could be used to create “designer babies” by altering eggs, embryo or sperm.

China said He’s work was “extremely abominable” and he was jailed for three years after being found guilty of practising medicine illegally.

In September, an international panel of experts issued a report saying it was too soon to undertake such experiments because it is not yet possible to ensure safety.

But scientists have praised the great potential that gene editing offers to patients now.

“There’s no aspect of biomedical research that hasn’t been touched by CRISPR,” which has been used to try and cure diseases including sickle cell, HIV and inherited forms of blindness, Dr Kiran Musunuru, an expert in genetics at the University of Pennsylvania, told AP news agency. 

The prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were created and funded in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel and have been awarded since 1901, with the economics award a later addition.

This year’s events, such as the grand banquet, cancelled or moved online, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doudna, who discovered she had won when was woken up in the early hours by a reporter, said the award to her and Charpentier showed “women rock”.

“Many women think that, no matter what they do, their work will never be recognized the way it would be if they were a man,” she said. “And I think (this prize) refutes that. It makes a strong statement that women can do science, women can do chemistry, and that great science is recognized and honored.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies