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2 scientists win Nobel chemistry prize for gene-editing tool

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for developing a way of editing genes likened to “molecular scissors” that offer the promise of one day curing inherited diseases.

Working on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer A. Doudna came up with a method known as CRISPR-cas9 that can be used to change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms. It was the first time two women have won the chemistry Nobel together — adding to the small number of female laureates in the sciences, where women have long received less recognition for their work than men.

The scientists’ work allows for laser-sharp snips in the long strings of DNA that make up the “code of life,” allowing researchers to precisely edit specific genes to remove errors that lead to disease.

“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 revolutionized basic science, but 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 fix genetic damage.”


Dr. Francis Collins, who led the drive to map the human genome, said the technology “has changed everything” about how to approach diseases with a genetic cause, such as sickle cell disease.

“You can draw a direct line from the success of the human genome project to the power of CRISPR-cas to make changes in the instruction book,” said Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health that helped fund Doudna’s work.

But many also cautioned that the technology must be used carefully and that it raises serious ethical questions. Much of the world became more aware of CRISPR in 2018, when Chinese scientist He Jiankui revealed he had helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies, to try to engineer resistance to future infection with the AIDS virus. His work was denounced as unsafe human experimentation because of the risk of causing unintended changes that could pass to future generations, and he’s currently imprisoned in China.

In September, an international panel of experts issued a report saying it’s still too soon to try to make genetically edited babies because the science isn’t advanced enough to ensure safety, but they mapped a pathway for countries that want to consider it.

“Being able to selectively edit genes means that you are playing God in a way,” said American Chemistry Society President Luis Echegoyen, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas El Paso.

Charpentier, 51, spoke of the shock of winning.

“Strangely enough I was told a number of times (that I’d win), but when it happens you’re very surprised and you feel that it’s not real,” she told reporters by phone from Berlin after the award was announced in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “But obviously it’s real, so I have to get used to it now.”

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Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna win Nobel Prize in Chemistry for genome editing tool

Oct. 7 (UPI) — A French scientist and an American professor were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for their work in developing a “genetic scissors” used to fight human diseases.

Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French-born researcher and director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Germany, and Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, were given the chemistry prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced in Stockholm.

The pair worked together to help develop the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editor, which is capable of cutting DNA genomes in precise locations and allowing researchers to add or delete pieces of genetic material or make changes by replacing an existing segment with a customized sequence.

The tool’s development has led to widespread applications for genome editing — and is faster, more accurate, more efficient and less expensive than other existing methods.

The CRISPR/Cas9 system is used to research a wide variety of diseases, including single-gene disorders including cystic fibrosis, hemophilia and sickle cell disease. It also holds some promise for treating and preventing complex diseases like cancer, heart disease, mental illness and HIV/AIDS.

Genome editing has also found a strong presence in agriculture, where it’s used to develop crops resistant to mold, pests and drought.

After publishing an initial discovery in 2011, Charpentier teamed with Doudna to develop the “genetic scissors” to make it easier to use. The next year, they proved it could be controlled and used to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all,” Claes Gustafsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said in a statement Wednesday. “It has not only revolutionized basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.”

Due to ethical considerations, scientists are limited to using CRISPR/Cas9 in humans on somatic cells — cells other than egg and sperm cells. Changes made in those cells are not passed from one generation to the next.

The Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded Monday to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and Briton Michael Houghton for their work on curing Hepatitis C; the prize for physics was given Tuesday to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for their research on black holes.

The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded Thursday, the peace prize on Friday and the prize for economic sciences on Oct. 12.

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