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Nobel prize won by DNA tool that can rewrite the 'code of life'

:: First time prestigious accolade has been claimed by two women

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Life sciences: Emmanuelle Charpentier said she was ‘extremely moved’ and surprised to win the Nobel prize. Photo: Reuters

Life sciences: Emmanuelle Charpentier said she was ‘extremely moved’ and surprised to win the Nobel prize. Photo: Reuters

Life sciences: Emmanuelle Charpentier said she was ‘extremely moved’ and surprised to win the Nobel prize. Photo: Reuters

Two scientists won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry yesterday for creating genetic 'scissors' that can rewrite the code of life, contributing to new cancer therapies and holding out the prospect of curing hereditary diseases.

Emmanuelle Charpentier, who is French, and American Jennifer Doudna share the €955,000 prize for developing the CRISPR/Cas9 tool to edit the DNA of animals, plants and micro-organisms with precision.

"The ability to cut the DNA where you want has revolutionised the life sciences," Pernilla Wittung Stafshede of the Swedish Academy of Sciences told the award ceremony.

Ms Charpentier (51) and Ms Doudna (56) become the sixth and seventh women to win a Nobel prize for chemistry, joining Marie Curie, who won in 1911, and more recently, Frances Arnold in 2018.

It is the first time since 1964, when Britain's Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin alone won the award, that no men are among the chemistry prize winners.

Ms Charpentier, of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, told journalists in Berlin she was "extremely emotional and extremely moved" by the award, which came as a complete surprise even though she had been tipped as a contender.

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Victory: Nobel prize winner, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, shares in a prize of €955,000

Victory: Nobel prize winner, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, shares in a prize of €955,000

Victory: Nobel prize winner, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, shares in a prize of €955,000

The first Nobel prize won by two women showed "science becomes more modern and develops more female leaders", she said.

Ms Doudna is already employing CRISPR in the battle against the coronavirus as co-founder of biotech start-up Mammoth, which has tied up with GlaxoSmithKline to develop a test to detect infections.

"What started as a curiosity-driven, fundamental discovery project has now become the breakthrough strategy used by countless researchers working to help improve the human condition," Ms Doudna said in a statement.

The path from discovery to prize has taken less than a decade - a relatively short period by Nobel standards.

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Although CRISPR had been tipped to win the chemistry prize, there has also been concern that the technology conferred God-like powers on scientists and could be misused, for example, to create 'designer babies'.

"The enormous power of this technology means that we need to use it with great care," said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

"But it is equally clear that this is a technology, a method that will provide humankind with great opportunities."

Asked whether she had a relationship with God, Ms Charpentier earlier told the award ceremony that she was raised a Catholic. Now, she said: "All my focus is on science - I believe in what I am doing as a scientist."

CRISPR is a crowded field, with competing claims on discovery triggering a patent dispute that continues between the prize winners and a team led by Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Despite the controversy, Broad Institute Director Eric Lander sent his "huge congratulations" to Ms Charpentier and Ms Doudna.

"It's exciting to see the endless frontiers of science continue to expand, with big impacts for patients," he tweeted.


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