CRISPR scientists awarded Nobel Prize in chemistry

8 October 2020

Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, and Jennifer Doudna of University of California Berkeley have been honoured for their work on CRISPR-Cas9, or CRISR for short, a technology which allows scientists to make specific and precise changes to DNA.

Charpentier and Doudna met in 2011 when attending a conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, going on to collaborate on recreating the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes’s “genetic scissors” – part of its immune system – in a test tube. The two also worked to simplify the molecular components of the scissors, such that it would become easier to use as a tool.

Charpentier and Doudna showed that the genetic scissors – which, in their natural form, help bacteria recognise DNA from viruses – could be repurposed to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Their findings were published in a 2012 paper.

Since then, the interest in and use of CRISPR has exploded within many fields. In medicine, it has led to new forms of cancer therapies, the clinical trials of which are currently underway. It also promises to provide cures for inherited diseases such as sickle cell anaemia.

CRISPR has, however, stoked fears that genetic modification could be used to create “designer babies”. In 2019, the Chinese scientist He Jiankui was jailed for three years after creating the world’s first gene-edited human babies. He violated the Chinese government’s ban of doing experiments on human embryos, by trying to give them protection against HIV using CRISPR.

The genetic editing tool has also been the subject of a long-running patent battle between Charpentier and Doudna’s team at Berkeley, and a team at MIT and Harvard's Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The competing institutions each claim their scientists made the most crucial advances in the technology, making the Nobel Prize a potentially controversial one.

Disegno wrote about CRISPR and the design of living organisms in 2016.