STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for developing a method of genome editing likened to “molecular scissors” that offer the promise of one day curing inherited diseases and even cancer.
Working on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer A. Doudna developed a method known as CRISPR/Cas9 that can be used to change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision.
“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,” adding that the tool “will provide humankind with great opportunities.”
But he cautioned that the "enormous power of this technology means we have to use it with great care."
It has already raised serious ethical questions in the scientific community. Most of the world became more aware of CRISPR in 2018, when Chinese scientist Dr. 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 worldwide as unsafe human experimentation because of the risk of causing unintended changes that can pass to future generations, and he’s currently in prison.
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 any countries that want to consider it.
“I was very emotional, I have to say,” Charpentier, 51, told reporters by phone from Berlin after hearing of the award, announced Wednesday in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Asked about the fact that it was the first time that two women have won the chemistry Nobel together, Charpentier said that while she considers herself first and foremost a scientist, she hoped it would encourage others.
“I wish that this will provide a positive message to young girls who would like to follow the path of science," she said.
Doudna told The Associated Press about her surprise at receiving the early morning call.
“I literally just found out, I’m in shock," she said. "I was sound asleep.”
“My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” Doudna said.
The Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT have been in a long court fight over patents on CRISPR technology, and many other scientists did important work on it, but Doudna and Charpentier have been most consistently honored with prizes for turning it into an easily usable tool.
The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and prize money of 10 million kronor (more than $1.1 million), courtesy of a bequest left more than a century ago by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. The amount was increased recently to adjust for inflation.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize for physiology and medicine to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton for discovering the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus. Tuesday's prize for physics went to Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany, and Andrea Ghez of the United States for their breakthroughs in understanding the mysteries of cosmic black holes.
The other prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics.