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Nobel Prize for Chemistry given to two scientists for developing genome editing method

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Svisio/iStockBy JON HAWORTH, ABC News

(LONDON) — Two scientists have been announced as the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were jointly awarded the prize for “for the development of a method for genome editing.”

“Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors,” the Nobel Committee said in a statement. “Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. 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.”

Charpentier and Doudna will equally split the 10 million kronor ($1.11 million U.S.) cash award.

“Researchers need to modify genes in cells if they are to find out about life’s inner workings,” said the Nobel Committee. “This used to be time-consuming, difficult and sometimes impossible work. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks.”

The discovery of these genetic scissors was, however, unexpected.

“During Emmanuelle Charpentier’s studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, she discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA. Charpentier published her discovery in 2011. The same year, she initiated a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA. Together, they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use,” the Nobel Committee explained.

Through experimentation Charpentier and Doudna were able to reprogram the genetic scissors and eventually proved that they could be controlled to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site.

“Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life,” said the Nobel Committee in their announcement.

“Since Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 their use has exploded,” the committee continued. “This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research, and plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mold, pests and drought. In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway, and the dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is about to come true. These genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry: “There is 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.”

Emmanuelle Charpentier was born in 1968 in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France, and received her Ph.D. 1995 from Institut Pasteur in Paris. She is now the director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin.

Jennifer A. Doudna was born 1964 in Washington, D.C, and received her Ph.D. in 1989 from Harvard Medical School. She currently is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and Investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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