Dynamic science duo: 4 things to know about the inspiring women who just won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Emmanuelle Charpentier, Ph.D., and Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., were just honored with the prestigious award for their work with gene-editing technology CRISPR. But they also have a connection to Johnson & Johnson—they were awarded the Dr. Paul Janssen Award in 2014. Learn more about what makes them so impressive.
This week, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier, Ph.D., and Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., for their revolutionary discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology, which is considered one of the most significant breakthroughs in molecular biology in the past decade.
Johnson & Johnson first recognized the immense potential of the duo’s groundbreaking work in 2014, when the company honored Drs. Charpentier and Doudna with the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, which is given each year to the most passionate and creative scientist or scientists in basic or clinical research whose achievements have made, or have strong potential to make, a measurable impact on human health through the diagnosis, treatment or prevention of disease.
It’s just one example of the company’s long history of supporting women in leadership since its founding in 1886. Eight of the company’s initial 14 employees were women. And this year, Johnson & Johnson is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the formation of its Women’s Leadership & Inclusion employee resource group, which was formed to help achieve gender equality across the company globally to better fuel the future of human health.
“As the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of science in our society has become more front and center than ever before,” says Paul Stoffels, M.D., Chief Scientific Officer, Johnson & Johnson. “Prizes like the Nobel and the Dr. Paul Janssen Award are some of the ways in which we can celebrate the curiosity, perseverance and ingenuity of researchers whose work improves lives, brings hope and shapes our future. Johnson & Johnson is proud to congratulate Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna on the Nobel Prize honor.”
Learn more about these inspiring collaborators and how their work is helping to reshape the future of medicine.
Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna met at a fateful conference in 2011.
The women had both been intrigued by the potential of CRISPR—short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats of genetic information found in DNA.
After meeting by coincidence at a conference in Puerto Rico, they decided to collaborate on discovering how, exactly, CRISPR worked.
Just a year later, they published a seminal paper in the journal Science showing that it was possible to use an enzyme called Cas9 to delete a gene from a cell’s DNA or insert a new one, as well as determine where exactly Cas9 made its cuts by binding it to a molecule called guide RNA.
This potentially means CRISPR-Cas9 technology could be used one day to help treat illnesses caused by genetic mutations, such as cystic fibrosis, as well as diseases that infiltrate the DNA, such as HIV, through gene editing.
Their discovery has transformed how scientists approach drug discovery and development in less than a decade.
Current clinical trials aim to investigate whether CRISPR could help eliminate sickle cell disease, beta thalassemia or a form of congenital blindness. There are also studies in the works on the potential to use CRISPR to help address such diseases as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, type 1 diabetes, hemophilia and more.
Already, researchers are using CRISPR to engineer pest-resistant wheat and other crops and develop disease-resistant pigs, as well as ones with “humanized” organs that might be safe donors for transplants to human beings.
Dr. Doudna has helped to facilitate the ongoing conversation around the potential of CRISPR technology and how to govern it so that it’s used ethically—for instance, to remove genetic illnesses.
This is the first time in the history of the Nobel Prize that an all-woman science team has won.
It’s also only the fourth time in the 119-year history of the Nobel Prizes that women have won in the sciences category without a male collaborator: Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911 for her work on radioactivity, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin took the prize in 1964 for her pioneering use of X-ray techniques and Barbara McClintock was honored with the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1983 for her discovery of mobile genetic elements.
They are also the first women to have won a Dr. Paul Janssen Award. And they join three other Dr. Paul Janssen Award recipients—Craig Mello, Ph.D., Yoshinori Ohsumi, Ph.D. and James Allison, Ph.D.—who have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.
CRISPR isn’t the only project these researchers are working on.
While Dr. Charpentier continues to keep refining the gene-editing technology, she’s also investigating such biological phenomena as the interactions between bacteria and their hosts and the molecules that govern that relationship at her lab at the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin.
And Dr. Doudna, who works from the University of California, Berkeley, and is a member of the Johnson & Johnson Board of Directors, has helped to facilitate the ongoing conversation around the potential of CRISPR technology and how to govern it so that it’s used ethically—for instance, to remove genetic illnesses—and not cavalierly to delete human genes that pose no health threat.