Former Umeå scientist wins Nobel Prize for gene-editing tool

Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer Doudna of the United States have become two of only seven women Chemistry laureates in the history of the Nobel Prize.

Former Umeå scientist wins Nobel Prize for gene-editing tool
The announcement of the 2020 Nobel Chemistry Prize. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Charpentier and Doudna won the Nobel Chemistry Prize for developing the gene-editing technique known as the CRISPR-Cas9 DNA snipping “scissors”.

“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,” the Nobel jury said.

Charpentier, 51, and Doudna, 56, are just the sixth and seventh women to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

While researching a common harmful bacteria, Charpentier discovered acpreviously unknown molecule – part of the bacteria's ancient immune system that disarms viruses by snipping off parts of their DNA.

After publishing her research in 2011, Charpentier – while working at Umeå University in northern Sweden – worked with Doudna to recreate the bacteria's genetic scissors, simplifying the tool so it was easier to use and apply to other genetic material.

They then reprogrammed the scissors to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site – paving the way for scientists to rewrite the code of life where the DNA is snipped.

The CRISPR/Cas9 tool has already contributed to significant gains in crop resilience, altering their genetic code to better withstand drought and pests.

The technology has also led to innovative cancer treatments, and many experts hope it could one day make inherited diseases curable through gene manipulation.

The first time a woman was honoured with the chemistry prize was in 1911 when Marie Curie, who also took the physics prize in 1903, won for discovering the elements radium and polonium.

The pair will share 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million).

They would normally receive their Nobel from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10th, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.

But the in-person ceremony has been cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and replaced with a televised ceremony showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.

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