Two women made history last week Wednesday when they were jointly awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences since the first awards in 1901.
The pair, a Frenchwoman Emmanuele Charpentier (51) and the American Jennifer Doudna (56), discovered a gene-editing technology tool, also known as the “genetic scissors”. The accolade will see them pocketing about $1.1 million prize money and a gold medal.
Charpentier is the former director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Germany, while Doudna is based at the University of California, Berkeley, USA.
According to the Royal Swedish Academy’s press release, genetic scissors give the researchers the capability “to change the DNA of animals, plants and micro-organism with extremely high precision”.
It says this ground-breaking discovery has contributed to basic research including enabling plant researchers to develop crops that can withstand mould, pests and drought.
In addition, said the academy, it “has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences” including “contributing to new cancer therapies” and it will ultimately “make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true”.
Chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, Claes Gustafsson, said: “there is an enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.”
Peers of the two female scientists welcomed the discovery saying their achievement will help lay a solid foundation to develop targeted medicine for genetic conditions. They said this will also save time as previously it took longer for scientists to complete genetic modification experiments but with the new technology this could be achieved within weeks.
Doudna and Charpentier said they are excited and grateful and hoped this would inspire a new generation of women in the science space that is still predominantly male.
Said Charpentierd: “My wish is that this will provide a positive message to the young girls who would like to follow the path of science, and to show them that women in science can also have an impact through the research that they are performing.”
Added Doudna: “I think for many women there’s a feeling that no matter what they do their work will never be recognised as it might be if they were a man,” she said. “And I’d like to see that change, of course, and I think this is a step in the right direction.”
According to the academy, the breakthrough came about when Charpentier was studying “one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity and [she] discovered a previously unknown molecule that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA”.
She then teamed up with Doudna – a biochemist with advanced knowledge in RNA – and they “recreated the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplified the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use.”
But while the discovery is hailed as “the greatest benefit to humankind” some experts say the excitement should be tempered with a sense of caution. They say the gene-editing technology should be used with utmost care. This after He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, revealed in 2018 he contributed to making the world’s first gene-edited babies with a view to “engineering a resistance to future infection with the AIDS virus.
This sparked widespread and fierce condemnation within the science community that the technology is an “unsafe human experimentation”. In its reaction, the international panel of experts released a report saying it is rather too soon to try to make genetically edited babies because the science used is not yet fully developed to guarantee safety.