The History-Making Honourees of The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The History-Making Honourees of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Tanvir Minhas - 01 Feb 2021

Gene editing: a topic that has been circling around the scientific community for quite some time. The premise is simple - attempting to edit genomic sequences through modification, insertion, or deletion of DNA bases - yet the journey to develop accurate technology that enables us to do such a task has been a long and complex one. That is why the understanding of CRISPR-Cas9 systems in 2012 was so groundbreaking.

CRISPR, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a gene editing tool that allows researchers to pinpoint specific sequences within a genome that they wish to manipulate. The theory behind CRISPR comes from its key dynamic duo: the Cas9 protein and a guide RNA sequence. The gRNA is used first in order to accurately locate the desired DNA sequence, utilizing complementary base pairing to ensure the proper segment is recognized. From there, the Cas9 protein attached to the gRNA is able to make use of its enzymatic properties in order to cleave the DNA.

Once the cut has been made, DNA repair mechanisms work to mend the incision through the addition of new bases, leading to mutations that could possibly disable the gene. By studying the effects of a turning off a gene, researchers are able to better understand its role.

Beyond that, there have been techniques put in place where new DNA sequences can be introduced. The new strand is incorporated in the space created by the incision, granting the researcher more control over the modification than they would have had if they had simply left it to repair mechanisms.

The applications of CRISPR are vast, its therapeutic applications being amongst the most notable. Back in 2016, Dr. Lu You applied the technology to cancer immunotherapy. The PD-1 protein in immune cells had been shown to actually halt the body’s immune response, so by targeting and turning off the gene that encoded the protein, he and his team were able to slow cancer proliferation.

More recently, CRISPR has been used in tandem with antiretroviral therapy in live mice subjects to attempt to eradicate HIV. Long-acting slow-effective release antiretroviral therapy (LASER ART), studied by Dr. Howard Gendelman of the University of Nebraska, consists of a drug cocktail specifically designed to release the medication slowly over time. This pairing allowed CRISPR technology to remove the majority of the HIV DNA present in mice cells, then have the remaining DNA be treated with LASER ART.

So who exactly is behind the foundation of such a widely used technology? The answer: Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. As co-inventors of CRISPR, Charpentier and Doudna were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Founder of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens independent research institution, Charpentier (right) is well known for her work in genetics, microbiology, and biochemistry. Doudna (left) is a professor and researcher at UC Berkeley, specializing in multiple areas from biomedical and health sciences to molecular and cell biology. The researchers first met at an academic conference hosted in Puerto Rico, and have since done tremendous work in curating CRISPR technology.

The pair also made history as the first all-female recipients of the coveted Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and have been vocal about the ability of women to make strides in STEM.

“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,” stated Charpentier upon winning the award.

Doudna and Charpentier have developed technology that has created various opportunities for scientific research, contributing greatly to the medical world and inspiring countless individuals!








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