Nobel Prize in chemistry goes to work on CRISPR gene editing

The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday to UC Berkeley biochemist Jennifer A. Doudna and French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier for their pioneering work on the so-called CRISPR tool for gene editing, a discovery that holds out the possibility of curing genetic diseases.

The Nobel Committee said the two women’s work on developing the CRISPR method of genome editing, which the panel likened to a pair of “molecular scissors,” had transformed the life sciences by allowing scientists to target specific sequences on the human genome. That could, for example, allow scientists to fix cells with sickle-cell anemia.

“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.”

He added that “the enormous power of this technology means that we need to use it with great care. But it’s equally clear that this is a technology and method that will provide humankind with great opportunities.”

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, another member of the chemistry committee, added: “The genetic scissors were discovered just eight years ago but have already benefited humankind greatly. … Perhaps the dream of curing genetic diseases will come true.”

Washington-born and Harvard-educated Doudna is currently a professor at UC Berkeley. The French-born Charpentier is currently a director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.

The prizes were announced in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

“I was very emotional, I have to say,” Charpentier told reporters by phone from Berlin after learning that she had won.

It is the first time that the prestigious prize has been shared by two women. Charpentier said she hoped it would send “a positive message” to girls and young women “who would like to follow the path of science and … show them that, in principle, women in science can also be awarded prizes but, more importantly, that women in science can also have an impact through the research.”

The chemistry prize frequently honors work that has led to practical applications in wide use today — such as last year’s win for scientists behind the lithium-ion battery.

The chemistry award is one of the six 2020 Nobel Prizes being announced through Monday. The others are for work in physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

The Nobel comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (more than $1.1 million), courtesy of a bequest left 124 years ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.

Andrea Ghez, a professor at UCLA, was one of the joint winners of the physics prize, which was announced Tuesday.