STOCKHOLM (AP) — Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developing a genome-editing method akin to “molecular scissors” that offers the promise of one day curing inherited diseases and even cancer.
Working on both sides of the Atlantic, Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer A. Doudna have developed a method known as CRISPR/Cas9 which can be used to modify the DNA of animals, plants and micro-organisms with very high precision.
“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all,” said Claes Gustafsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. “It has not only revolutionized basic science, but has also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to groundbreaking new medical treatments.”
Gustafsson said that as a result, any genome can now be edited “to repair genetic damage”, adding that the tool “will provide humanity with great opportunities”.
But he warned that “the enormous power of this technology means that we must use it with great care”.
It has already raised serious ethical questions in the scientific community. Most of the world became more aware of CRISPR in 2018, when Chinese scientist Dr. He Jiankui revealed that he had helped create the world’s first genetically modified babies, in an attempt to create resistance to future infection with the AIDS virus. His work has been denounced worldwide as dangerous human experimentation due to the risk of causing unintended changes that can be passed on to future generations, and he is currently in prison.
In September, an international group of experts released a report saying it is still too early to try to create genetically modified babies, as the science is not advanced enough to guarantee safety, but they have charted a course. for all countries wishing to consider it.
“I was very moved, I must say,” Charpentier, 51, told reporters by phone from Berlin after hearing about the prize, announced in Stockholm on Wednesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Asked if this was the first time two women had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry together, Charpentier said that while she thought of herself as a scientist first and foremost, she hoped it would encourage others.
“I hope this sends a positive message to young girls who would like to follow the path of science,” she said.
Doudna told The Associated Press of her surprise to receive the call early in the morning.
“I literally just found out, I’m in shock,” she said. “I was sleeping soundly.”
“My greatest hope is that it will be used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and for the good of humanity,” Doudna said.
Harvard’s Broad Institute and MIT have fought a long court battle over patents on CRISPR technology, and many other scientists have done important work on it, but Doudna and Charpentier have been honored with awards most regularly. for turning it into an easily usable tool.
The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and a cash prize of 10 million crowns (over $1.1 million), courtesy of a legacy left over a century ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. The amount was recently increased to account for inflation.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize in physiology and medicine to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton for discovery of the hepatitis C virus which ravages the liver. Tuesday’s physics prize went to Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany and Andrea Ghez of the United States for their breakthroughs in understand the mysteries of cosmic black holes.
The other prizes recognize outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics.