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Winner Of Nobel Prize In Chemistry Discusses Her Discovery Of CRISPR As A Genome Editing Technology

Technology co-inventor CRISPR-CAS9 Jennifer Doudna speaks onstage at WIRED Business Conference In New York City on June 7, 2017. (Brian Ach/Getty Images for Wired)
Technology co-inventor CRISPR-CAS9 Jennifer Doudna speaks onstage at WIRED Business Conference In New York City on June 7, 2017. (Brian Ach/Getty Images for Wired)

Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for her pioneering research in CRISPR gene editing. She is receiving the prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin.

Doudna and Charpentier discovered that the CRISPR-Cas9 protein works as genetic scissors, which researchers can use to make changes to the DNA. Their research can contribute to new cancer therapies and represents a major advancement towards curing genetic diseases such as sickle cell disease.

"Working on the project with Emmanuelle — once we understood how the CRISPR-Cas9 protein works as a programmable system in enzyme [and] in bacteria to cut DNA and that we could control where it cuts DNA by changing its little molecular zip code that directs it to particular sequences — that’s when we really understood that this had the potential to be a transformative technology," Doudna says.

They are the first women ever to win the prize.

"I'm proud of my gender," Doudna says, adding she hopes this win encourages girls and women to pursue their passions and see that their work can be celebrated.

Interview Highlights

On how it feels to have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry

"Well, overwhelming is probably the first word that comes to mind. It’s quite stunning and just extraordinary. I’m thinking very much about my collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier, very, very excited to be receiving this prize with her and of course, our students and postdoc who did the work, Martin Jinek in my lab and [Krzysztof] Chylinski in Emmanuelle’s group. So we’re very proud of them, and just the opportunity to share in the joy about the discovery of CRISPR as a genome editing technology."

On the most important accomplishments that have resulted from the development of CRISPR technology

"It's important I mention that this is a technology that comes from bacteria. It comes from a bacterial immune system that gives bacteria the ability to defend themselves against viruses, something that seems particularly relevant maybe now during this pandemic. And over the last eight years, it’s been already applied in medicine and increasingly in agriculture and other areas of biology. I would just point to recent announcements over the last year about the use of CRISPR in folks that are affected by sickle cell disease as well as cancer, and we’re seeing early signs at least that CRISPR is going to be a technology that will probably be … broadly applicable for treating genetic disease in the future as a way to correct the actual genes that lead to disease. That’s, I think, what has really attracted a lot of attention, although there’s equal opportunities, I would argue, in agriculture as well."

On ensuring that CRISPR is used responsibly and ethically

"Hard question, but very, very important. I think the first step has to be the scientific community coming together to address these kinds of questions openly and transparently. And I’ve been very pleased over the last five years that this has really happened more and more. In fact, just very recently, in the last few weeks, we’ve seen [the] release of a report from the National Academies [of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] and the Royal Society [Open Science] that collaborated to put out the results of of a study by an international commission, making recommendations about how the scientific and clinical communities can move forward in a responsible fashion, so I feel cautiously optimistic that there is ... a real sense of urgency around the world about making sure that a powerful tool is used responsibly."


Ciku Theuri produced and edited this story for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Elie Levine adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.