Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded for gene-editing tool
Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for developing “molecular scissors” to edit genes, offering the promise of one day curing inherited diseases.
Working on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer A. Doudna came up with a method known as CRISPR-cas9 that can be used to change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms. It was only the fourth time that a Nobel in the sciences was awarded exclusively to women, who have long received less recognition for their work than men in the prize’s 119-year history.
Charpentier and Doudna’s work allows for laser-sharp snips in the long strings of DNA that make up the “code of life,” allowing scientists to precisely edit specific genes to remove errors that lead to disease in humans — and is already being used for that purpose.
“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 revolutionized basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to groundbreaking new medical treatments.”
Gustafsson said that, as a result, any genome can now be edited “to fix genetic damage.”
Dr. Francis Collins, who led the drive to map the human genome, said the technology “has changed everything” about how to approach diseases with a genetic cause, such as sickle cell disease.
“You can draw a direct line from the success of the human genome project to the power of CRISPR-cas to make changes in the instruction book,” said Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which helped fund Doudna’s work.
But many also cautioned that the technology raises serious ethical questions and must be used carefully. Much of the world became more aware of CRISPR in 2018, when Chinese scientist He Jiankui revealed he had helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies, to try to engineer resistance to future infection with the AIDS virus. His work was denounced as unsafe human experimentation because of the risk of causing unintended changes that could pass to future generations, and he’s been sentenced to prison in China.
In September, an international panel of experts issued a report saying it’s still too soon to try to make genetically edited babies because the science isn’t advanced enough to ensure safety, but they mapped a pathway for countries that want to consider it.
“Being able to selectively edit genes means that you are playing God in a way,” said American Chemistry Society President Luis Echegoyen, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas El Paso.
Charpentier, 51, spoke of the shock of winning.
“Strangely enough I was told a number of times (that I’d win), but when it happens you’re very surprised and you feel that it’s not real,” she told reporters by phone from Berlin after the award was announced in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “But obviously it’s real, so I have to get used to it now.”
When asked about the significance of two women winning, Charpentier said that while she considers herself first and foremost a scientist, “it’s reflective of the fact that science becomes more modern and involves more female leaders.”
“I do hope that it will remain and even develop more in this direction,” she said, adding that it’s “more cumbersome to be a woman in science than to be a man in science.”