Charpentier and Doudna win 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry


Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier, 51, and Jennifer Doudna, 56, won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the development of a method for genome editing.

They both worked on their 2012 discovery of Crispr/Cas9, a powerful gene-editing tool which allows researchers to make precise changes to genes. 

Only five women have previously won the Nobel prize for Chemistry, despite the award first being handed out in 1901. 

Professors Doudna, from France, and Charpentier, from America, are the first women to share the prize.

Speaking today at a virtual press conference, Professor Charpentier said: ”y wish is that this will provide a positive message to the young girls who would like to follow the path of science, and to show them that women in science can also have an impact through the research that they are performing.’ 

Emmanuelle Charpentier

This year’s winners of the Nobel prize for chemistry are Emmanuelle Charpentier (right) and Jennifer Doudna (left)

Previous women to win the Nobel prize for chemistry 

  • Marie Curie 1911
  • Irène Joliot-Curie 1935
  • Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin 1964
  • Ada Yonath 2009
  • Frances H. Arnold 2018

Professor Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry congratulated the latest Nobel laureates and called their recognition ‘hugely deserved’ due to the huge impact CRISPR has had in the short time since its discovery.

‘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 says. 

‘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.’

Dr John Parrington, a lecturer in Cellular & Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Oxford, echoed this sentiment. 

‘I think this is very well deserved indeed. CRISPR/Cas genome editing is a revolutionary technology that has made it possible for the first time in history to precisely edit the genomes of living cells of practically any species,’ he said.

‘I particularly welcome the award of this prize to two outstanding women scientists and I hope this serves as a stimulus for more women to be inspired to seek careers in the field of science and technology.’

Crispr-Cas9 has already become one of the most widely used tools in the treatment and creation of therapeutics for hereditary diseases since its discovery.

It has been likened to a pair of genetic scissors, allowing for tiny snippets of the genome to be removed and replaced. 

The scope of Crispr-Cas9 is enormous and has opened up various debates about whether it can be used ethically in humans. 

Critics say messing around with genes is akin to ‘playing God’ and could lead to ‘designer babies’, whereas advocates of the technology say it could allow for the eradication of hereditary disease such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. 

‘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.

The two scientists will share the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.1 million) prize.

The recipients were announced today in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

‘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.’

Gustafsson said that as a result, any genome can now be edited ‘to fix genetic damage.’

Gusfafsson cautioned that the ‘enormous power of this technology means we have to use it with great care’ but that it ‘is equally clear that this is a technology, a method that will provide humankind with great opportunities.’

Professor Charpentier is a leading researcher in microbiology, genetics and biochemistry and now holds the post of director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany.

During her education she attended the Pierre and Marie Curie University, an institute in Paris. 

This place of higher learning is named after Marie Curie, and her late husband, who is one of the most famous scientists of all time, and a fellow winner of the Nobel prize for Chemistry, which she won in 1911.

‘I was very emotional, I have to say,’ Charpentier told reporters by phone from Berlin after hearing of the award. 

Jennifer Anne Doudna is an American biochemist known for her pioneering work in CRISPR gene editing at the University of California, Berkeley. 

WHAT IS CRISPR-CAS9?

CRISPR-Cas9 is a tool for making precise edits in DNA, discovered in bacteria.

The acronym stands for ‘Clustered Regularly Inter-Spaced Palindromic Repeats’.

The technique involves a DNA cutting enzyme and a small tag which tells the enzyme where to cut.

The CRISPR/Cas9 technique uses tags which identify the location of the mutation, and an enzyme, which acts as tiny scissors, to cut DNA in a precise place, allowing small portions of a gene to be removed

The CRISPR/Cas9 technique uses tags which identify the location of the mutation, and an enzyme, which acts as tiny scissors, to cut DNA in a precise place, allowing small portions of a gene to be removed

By editing this tag, scientists are able to target the enzyme to specific regions of DNA and make precise cuts, wherever they like.

It has been used to ‘silence’ genes – effectively switching them off.

When cellular machinery repairs the DNA break, it removes a small snip of DNA.

In this way, researchers can precisely turn off specific genes in the genome.

The approach has been used previously to edit the HBB gene responsible for a condition called β-thalassaemia. 

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

The famed award comes with a gold medal and a share of the prize money, which stands at 10 million Swedish kronor (more than $1.1 million/£864,200).

The award and funds come courtesy of a bequest left 124 years ago by the prize’s creator, Alfred Nobel. The amount increased recently to adjust for inflation.

Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite and it is believed a surge of guilt late in life saw him write out a new will in 1895 leaving his fortune, believed to be around $250 million, to set up the Nobel Prize.  

He was an inventor with hundreds of patents, but his money was earned from dynamite, as he profited handsomely from the misery and death it caused. 

After reading an obituary on his life, published in error, he decided to set up the institute upon his death and alter his legacy posthumously.  

He would die just a year later, and his name lives on in the most coveted scientific award there is.  

Yesterday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize for physics to British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose for work published in 1965 that used Einstein’s theory of relativity to prove that black holes do exist. 

He shares the award with Professor Genzel, 68, from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, and Professor Ghez, 55, from UCLA. 

On Monday, the prize for physiology and medicine to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton for discovering the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus.

The other prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics. 

Genome editing is NOT yet ready to be tried safely in humans 

Editing the genes of embryos is not yet safe for humans, according to a new report published by the world’s leading experts in fertility, ethics and biology. 

Germline gene editing is a process where faulty, diseased, or undesirable genes in an embryo, sperm of egg are removed, altered or replaced by scientists. 

This system is extremely powerful and the changes made are not only permanent, but will be passed down the generations. 

However, this landmark report says not enough is known about the safety or precision of the process for it to be trialled in humans. 

Advocates of human germline genome editing are pushing for the procedure to be investigated, as it has the ability to allow babies destined to inherit life-threatening conditions to be born disease-free. 

The topic of gene editing embryos to ‘customise’ a baby has been at the forefront of science since the shock announcement in 2018 that a rogue scientist in China had used the powerful gene-editing tool Crispr on a pair of twin girls. 

Currently, editing the DNA of a human embryo is not allowed in the US, thanks to a 2017 ruling by the international committee of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Crispr-based experiments on human embryos were approved in the UK in 2016 with the stipulation they are never transplanted to create a pregnancy and must be destroyed after a week.  

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