Nobel prize in chemistry for mothers of gene ‘scissors’
Two scientists won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for creating genetic “scissors” that can rewrite the code of life, contributing to new cancer therapies and holding out the prospect of curing hereditary diseases.
Emmanuelle Charpentier, who is French, and American Jennifer Doudna share the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.1 million) prize for developing the CRISPR/Cas9 tool to edit the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with precision.
“The ability to cut the DNA where you want has revolutionised the life sciences,” Pernilla Wittung Stafshede of the Swedish Academy of Sciences told an award ceremony.
Charpentier, 51, and Doudna, 56, become the sixth and seventh women to win a Nobel for chemistry, joining Marie Curie, who won in 1911, and more recently, Frances Arnold, in 2018.
It is the first time since 1964, when Britain’s Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin alone won the award, that no men are among the chemistry prize winners.
Charpentier, of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, told journalists in Berlin she was “extremely emotional and extremely moved” by the award.
The first Nobel won by two women showed how “science becomes more modern and develops more female leaders”, she said after setting down a glass of wine to pose for the cameras alongside a bust of Planck, the 1918 physics Nobel laureate.
The head of the Academy had to ask Charpentier for Doudna’s cellphone number to break the news, only to be beaten to the punch by a reporter at 3am on the US West Coast. “She wanted to know if I could comment on the Nobel and I said, ‘Well, who won it?’ Doudna said, breaking into a laugh.
Doudna is already employing CRISPR in the battle against the coronavirus as co-founder of biotech start-up Mammoth, which has tied up with GlaxoSmithKline to develop a test to detect infections.
The path from discovery to prize has taken less than a decade — a relatively short period by Nobel standards.
And, although CRISPR had been tipped to win the chemistry prize, there has also been concern that the technology conferred God-like powers on scientists and could be misused, for example, to create “designer babies”.
“The enormous power of this technology means that we need to use it with great care,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel committee for chemistry. “But it is equally clear that this is a technology that will provide humankind with great opportunities.”
CRISPR is a crowded field, with competing claims on discovery triggering a patent dispute that continues between the prize winners and a team led by Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Charpentier’s breakthrough came in the study of Streptococcus pyogenes, an ancient bacterium that can cause tonsilitis and potentially fatal sepsis in people, when she found that a previously unknown molecule in its immune system could “cleave” DNA.
She published her findings in 2011 and joined forces with biochemist Doudna, of the University of California, , after the pair hit it off when they met in Puerto Rico during a conference that year.
“I remember it well,” Doudna recalled on a video news conference. “We walked around the streets of Old San Juan and talked about CRISPR/Cas9 and how it would be really interesting to figure out what it might be doing in bacteria.”
The duo succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the molecular structure of the tool to make it easier to use. They published their findings in June 2012, seven months before the Broad Institute group, which successfully filed a series of US patent applications and says its gene editing technology is better.
Despite the controversy, Broad Institute Director Eric Lander sent his “huge congratulations” to Charpentier and Doudna.