Wolf Prize Laureate in Medicine 2020
Affiliation at the time of the award:
University of California, Berkeley, USA
“for revealing the medicine-revolutionizing mechanism of bacterial immunity via RNA-guided genome editing.”
Jennifer Doudna, together with the French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, led the discovery of the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. This transformative technology has the potential to eradicate previously incurable diseases and revolutionizing the fields of genetics, molecular biology and medicine.
Doudna (Born 1964) grew up in rural Hawaii, where she first became interested in the chemistry of living systems. Dr Doudna is currently the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences and she is Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and Professor of Chemistry at UC Berkeley and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Professor Doudna’s research seeks to understand how RNA molecules control the expression of genetic information. Early in her career, Dr Doudna’s lab determined some of the first crystal structures of RNA and RNA-protein complexes, providing unprecedented insights into molecular function of non-protein-coding RNAs.
More recently she and her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier determined the mechanism of RNA-guided bacterial adaptive immunity by the CRISPR-Cas9 system, enabling them to harness this system for efficient genome engineering in animals and plants. These “genetic scissors” can be used for targeting any gene in a cell in order to modify it. With this revolutionary technology, it is much easier to modify gene expression, to switch a gene “on” or “off,” or to change, repair, or remove genes. This new tool is now used in molecular biology laboratories around the world, and has the potential to revolutionize medicine by paving the way to finding new forms of treatment for currently incurable diseases.
The bacterial CRISPR-Cas9 system is based on an immune-like defense mechanism of action that bacteria use to protect themselves from viruses.
The genome editing technique resulting from their findings immediately allowed researchers to target and cut DNA with great precision and has therefore improved the speed, efficiency and flexibility of genome editing at an unprecedented speed and ease. This new understanding already enables world-wide researchers to rapidly model human disease genes in the laboratory, accelerating the search for new drug leads and opening new doors for the treatment of human genetic disorders. These same features also call for extreme care in employing this novel technology, highlighting the need for continuous exchange of information between research scientists and policy makers for avoiding the risks involved in careless use of these unprecedented research tools.
Jennifer Doudna is awarded the Wolf Prize for her continuous research excellence which has led to her leading work that has systematically revealed both the structural elements and the medicine-revolutionizing mechanism of bacterial immunity via RNA-guided genome editing in collaboration with Emanuelle Charpentier; and for her important contribution to the ethical discussion of how this technology should best be used for ensuring successful yet humane and considerate prospects for human health and well-being.