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French, American Women Win Nobel in Chemistry for Genetic Tool

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French and American scientists won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Wednesday for developing a tool that can change the genetic material of living things.

Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and American Jennifer Doudna developed the genetic tool known as CRISPR-cas9. The tool has been described as "molecular scissors" which can change nucleic acids, such as DNA, which hold the genetic information necessary for life.

The 2020 chemistry prize marks only the fourth time that a Nobel in the sciences was awarded exclusively to women. Female researchers have long received less recognition for their work than men in the prize's 119-year history.

The Swedish Academy of Sciences said Charpentier and Doudna's discovery has helped provide new treatments for cancer. It also might supply a way to cure diseases passed down through generations. But the tool also raises some ethical concerns.

'Molecular scissors'

CRISPR-cas9 came as an unexpected discovery. Charpentier had been studying the genetic material of an ancient bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes. It is a cause of infections in humans. The Nobel committee said that Charpentier's work showed that part of the bacterium's RNA, another nucleic acid, can cut long DNA molecules.

FILE - This Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015 file combo image shows Emmanuelle Charpentier, left, and Jennifer Doudna, both speaking at the National Academy of Sciences international summit on the safety and ethics of human gene editing, in Washington.
FILE - This Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015 file combo image shows Emmanuelle Charpentier, left, and Jennifer Doudna, both speaking at the National Academy of Sciences international summit on the safety and ethics of human gene editing, in Washington.

The French scientist worked with Doudna who is an expert in RNA. They processed and simplified the "molecular scissors" so they are easier to use and can cut any DNA molecule at an exact place. In the words of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: "Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life."

'Changes in the instruction book'

"There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all," said Claes Gustafsson, the chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. He added that any set of genes can now be edited, or changed, "to fix genetic damage."

Francis Collins is a doctor who led the effort to map the human genome. He also is director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health which helped support Doudna's work. He said the technology "has changed everything" about how to deal with diseases with a genetic cause, such as sickle cell disease.

Collins said that the CRISPR tool combined with the mapping of the human genome was meaningful.

"You can draw a direct line from the success of the human genome project to the power of CRISPR-cas to make changes in the instruction book," he said.

The technology has so much power that many scientists warn that it raises serious ethical questions. In 2018, a Chinese scientist He JianKui announced that he had used CRISPR to genetically change several human embryos to resist HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The babies reportedly were born healthy.

'Playing God'

But He's experimental work on embryos was denounced around the world as unsafe. The long term results for the genetically-edited children and their possible future children are unknowable.

Last year, the scientist was sentenced to three years in prison in connection with his work.

In September of this year, a report from an international group of experts declared that it is still too soon to try to genetically edit babies.

"Being able to selectively edit genes means that you are playing God in a way," said American Chemistry Society President Luis Echegoyen.

'A positive message to young girls'

The research that led to the CRISPR tool was published in June 2012. That makes the prize winning effort recent in comparison to other Nobel wins. Charpentier noted: "This discovery is only eight years ago…Everyone is using now the CRIPSR-cas9."

Of winning the prize, Doudna said, "My greatest hope is that it's used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind."

Charpentier was asked about the importance of women winning the science prize. She answered, "I wish this will provide a positive message to young girls who would like to follow the path of science."

With Charpentier and Doudna, three women have won science Nobel prizes so far this year and seven have now won the prize in Chemistry. As of Wednesday, 57 Nobel Prizes have gone to women. Marie Curie won the Physics prize twice. In addition, nearly half of that number —24— have been awarded in the 21st century.

Charpentier and Doudna have been recognized as the first to develop the CRISPR technology. However, many other scientists have done important work related to it. There has also been a legal dispute with the Broad Institute at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology over legal ownership of some parts of the technology.

The 51-year-old Charpentier is currently the director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. Doudna, who is 56, works for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and has ties to the University of California, Berkeley.

They are to share the prize valued at $1.1 million.

I'm Mario Ritter Jr.

And I'm Caty Weaver.

Mario Ritter Jr. adapted this report for VOA Learning English from AP, Reuters and Nobelprize.org sources. Caty Weaver was the editor.

Words in This Story

scissors –n. (pl.) a tool used for cutting materials made of two blades joined together in the middle so that the sharp edges slide against one another

code –n. signs that identify or gives information about something to someone

genome –n. the complete set of genetic material of a human or another living thing

instruction –n. a statement that describes how to do something

selectively –adv. involving choosing somethings and not others

benefit –v. to be helpful to

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