Two female biochemists have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, only the sixth and seventh women in history to win the prize, and the first time two women have won the award.
It’s the fourth time in the 119-year history of the prizes that a Nobel Prize in the sciences was given exclusively to women.
Emmanuelle Charpentier, founder and director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Germany, and Jennifer A. Doudna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of a method for genome editing” known as on CRISPR/Cas9.
Charpentier and Doudna’s gene-editing tool has revolutionised science by providing a method to alter DNA, the code of life. The technology already is being used to try to cure a host of diseases and raise better crops and livestock.
“This technology has utterly transformed the way we do research in basic science,” said Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “I am thrilled to see CRISPR getting the recognition we have all been waiting for, and seeing two women being recognised as Nobel Laureates.”
More than 100 clinical trials are underway using CRISPR to treat inherited diseases.
“There is enormous power in this genetic tool,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
“My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, who is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
She also said CRISPR has the potential to be used to engineer plants to store more carbon or to withstand extremes of climate change, giving researchers a chance to “address urgent problems humanity is facing.”
Charpentier, 51, 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 is “more cumbersome to be a woman in science than to be a man in science”.
The prize-winning work has opened the door to some thorny ethical issues: When editing is done after birth, the alterations are confined to that person. Scientists fear CRISPR will be misused to make “designer babies” by altering eggs, embryos or sperm — changes that can be passed on to future generations, AP News reported.
Much of the world became 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 infection with the AIDS virus. His work was denounced as unsafe human experimentation and he has been sentenced to prison in China.
“New technology often presents this dichotomy — there is immense potential for human benefit, especially for disease treatment, but also the risk of misapplication,” said Dr George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School.
However, scientists universally praised the great potential that gene editing has for patients now.
“There’s no aspect of biomedical research that hasn’t been touched by CRISPR,” which has been used to engineer better crops and to try to cure human diseases including sickle cell, HIV infection and inherited forms of blindness, said Dr Kiran Musunuru, a genetics expert at the University of Pennsylvania who is researching it for heart disease.
There have been three occasions when a woman has won a Nobel Prize in the sciences by herself. In 1911, Marie Curie was the sole recipient of the chemistry award. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin won an award in 1964, and in 1983, Barbara McClintock won the Nobel in medicine.
The breakthrough research done by Charpentier and Doudna was published in 2012, making the discovery very recent compared with a lot of other Nobel-winning research, which is often honoured only after decades have passed.
The Broad Institute, jointly run by Harvard University and MIT, has been in a court fight with Charpentier and Doudna over patents on CRISPR technology, and many other scientists did important work on it, but Doudna and Charpentier have been most consistently honoured with prizes for turning it into an easily usable tool.
It’s wonderful to see Jennifer and Emmanuelle recognized with the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry. The seminal “Jinek et al.” paper they published together has been cited >9,500 times—approximately once every 8 hours since its publication in 2012. (1/3)https://t.co/Aq1yy3A1pn
— David R. Liu (@davidrliu) October 7, 2020
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry provides the winners with a gold medal and 10 million kronor (more than US$1.1 million), courtesy of a bequest left more than a century ago by the prize’s creator, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.
The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Harvey J Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M Rice “for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus” on Monday. The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Roger Penrose “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity” and to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy”.
The prizes in literature, peace and economics are yet to be awarded.