Two women scientists won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday 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 10 million Swedish crown ($1.1 million) prize for developing the CRISPR/Cas9 tool to edit the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with precision.
“The ability to cut the DNA where you want has revolutionized the life sciences,” Pernilla Wittung Stafshede of the Swedish Academy of Sciences told an award ceremony.
Charpentier, 51, and Doudna, 56, become the sixth and seventh women to win a Nobel 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.
Charpentier, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, said she was “very emotional” after getting a call from Stockholm with the news.
“When it happens you are very surprised, and you feel that it is not real,” she said. “But obviously it is real so I have to get used to it now.”
Doudna is already employing CRISPR in the battle against the coronavirus as co-founder of biotech startup 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,” Doudna said in a statement issued by Berkeley.