Two women scientists won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for creating genetic ‘scissors’ that can rewrite the code of life, contributing to new cancer therapies and holding out the prospect of curing hereditary diseases.
Emmanuelle Charpentier, who is French, and American Jennifer Doudna share the SEK 10 million (roughly Rs. 8 crores) prize for developing the CRISPR/Cas9 tool to edit the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with precision.
“The ability to cut the DNA where you want has revolutionised the life sciences,” Pernilla Wittung Stafshede of the Swedish Academy of Sciences told an award ceremony.
Charpentier, 51, and Doudna, 56, become the sixth and seventh women to win a Nobel for chemistry, joining Marie Curie, who won in 1911, and more recently, Frances Arnold, in 2018.
It is the first time since 1964, when Britain’s Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin alone won the award, that no men are among the winners of the chemistry prize.
Charpentier, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, said she was “very emotional” after getting a call from Stockholm with the news.
“When it happens you are very surprised, and you feel that it is not real,” she said. “But obviously it is real so I have to get used to it now.”
The path from discovery to prize has taken less than a decade a relatively short period by Nobel standards.
And, although CRISPR had been widely tipped to win the Chemistry prize, there has also been concern about possible misuse of the technology, for example to create made-to-order ‘designer babies’.
“The enormous power of this technology means that we need to use it with great care,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
“But it is equally clear that this is a technology, a method that will provide humankind with great opportunities.”
CRISPR is a crowded field, with multiple claims on discovery leading to fierce patent disputes. Gustafsson deflected a question on whether the prize committee had considered other contenders for the award.
Charpentier’s breakthrough came in the study of ancient bacteria, Streptococcus pyogenes, when she found that a previously unknown molecule was part of its immune system and was capable of ‘cleaving’ DNA.
She published her findings in 2011 and, in that year, joined forces with biochemist Doudna, of the University of California, Berkeley, to recreate the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube.
DNA is a string with up to 6 billion coded instructions that tell a cell what to do. The beauty of CRISPR/Cas9 is that it can not only snip DNA at the right spot, but also repair the join so that errors do not creep in.
Today CRISPR/Cas9 is a common tool in biochemistry and molecular biology labs, used in plant treatments and to develop novel treatments of hereditary human diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia.
“We can now easily edit genomes as desired, something that before was hard, even impossible,” said Wittung Stafshede.
In keeping with tradition, chemistry is the third prize announced every year and follows those for medicine and physics earlier this week.
The prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were created and funded in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel and have been awarded since 1901, with the economics award a later addition.
Like so much else, the pandemic has redrawn the Nobels, with many of the traditional events, such as the grand banquet, cancelled or moved online even as research into the disease, above all the hunt for a vaccine, has dominated the scientific spotlight.