Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for their work on the technology of genome editing; their discovery, known as "genetic scissors", is a way of making specific and precise changes to the DNA contained in living cells. It offers the promise one day curing inherited diseases and even cancer.
Working on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer A. Doudna developed a method known as CRISPR/Cas9 that can be used to change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision.
"There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all," said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. "It has not only revolutionized basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments."
Gustafsson said that, as a result, any genome can now be edited "to fix genetic damage," adding that the tool "will provide humankind with great opportunities." But he cautioned that the "enormous power of this technology means we have to use it with great care."
It has already raised serious ethical questions in the scientific community. Most of the world became more aware of CRISPR in 2018, when Chinese scientist Dr He Jiankui revealed he had helped make the world's first gene-edited babies, to try to engineer resistance to future infection with the AIDS virus.
His work was denounced worldwide as unsafe human experimentation because of the risk of causing unintended changes that can pass to future generations, and he's currently in prison.
In September, an international panel of experts issued a report saying it's still too soon to try to make genetically edited babies because the science isn't advanced enough to ensure safety, but they mapped a pathway for any countries that want to consider it.
Asked about the fact that it was the first time that two women have won the chemistry Nobel together, Charpentier said that while she considers herself first and foremost a scientist, she hoped it would encourage others.
"I wish that this will provide a positive message to young girls who would like to follow the path of science," she said.
Doudna told The Associated Press about her surprise at receiving the early morning call. "I literally just found out, I'm in shock," she said. "I was sound asleep." "My greatest hope is that it is used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind," Doudna said.
The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and prize money of 10 million kronor (more than USD 1.1 million).