The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded this year to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for their work on "genetic scissors" that can cut DNA at a precise location, allowing scientists to make specific changes to specific genes.
"This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true," the Nobel Committee said in announcing the prize.
Already, doctors have used the technology to experimentally treat sickle cell disease, with promising results.
While some research advances take decades for people to fully appreciate how transformative they are, that wasn't the case for this new tool, known as CRISPR-Cas9.
"Once in a long time, an advance comes along that utterly transforms an entire field and does so very rapidly," says Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which has long supported Doudna's research. "You cannot walk into a molecular biology laboratory today, working on virtually any organism, where CRISPR-Cas9 is not playing a role in the ability to understand how life works and how disease happens. It's just that powerful."
"It was indeed mentioned to me a number of times, maybe more than what I would have liked, that one day this so-called discovery may be awarded the Nobel Prize," Charpentier said in a press briefing.
Still, even after winning other big awards, she says, that possibility didn't completely hit her until Goran K. Hansson, the secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, called to tell her the news.
"I was very emotional, I have to say," says Charpentier, who added that she had been told that winning a Nobel is always a big surprise and feels unreal. "Obviously, it's real, so I have to get used to it now."
There's been an ongoing feud, including a fight over lucrative patents, over who deserves the most credit for the development of CRISPR-Cas9.
"It's a big field and there's a lot of good science being done in this field. But we have decided this year to award the prize to Charpentier and Doudna, and I can only say that," said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, when asked if the committee had considered including anyone else in the prize.
"I guess whenever there's a Nobel Prize selection, there's always some second-guessing about who got left out," notes Collins, who says that George Church and Feng Zhang "and a long list of others" made it clear that this kind of approach could work in virtually any kind of cell.
Such a powerful new tool invariably raises questions about how it should be used ethically, especially considering that one researcher in China controversially used this technique to genetically alter babies.
When that scientist described his work in modifying human embryos, Doudna said that she was "horrified and stunned." She's called for regulation of the technology, writing that "ensuring responsible use of genome editing will enable CRISPR technology to improve the well-being of millions of people and fulfill its revolutionary potential."
For two women to share the Nobel Prize in chemistry is unusual. Between 1901 and 2020, it has been awarded to 185 individuals, and only seven of them have been women. In recent years, the Nobel committees have been trying to increase the diversity of researchers nominated for the science Nobel Prizes, which have been criticized for historically overlooking the achievements of both women and people of color.
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