News that Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry “for the development of a method for genome editing” known as CRISPR-Cas9 was exciting for several reasons. One is the impact of the discovery: CRISPR is a transformative tool for almost all aspects of biomedical research and can also be used directly as a treatment for some genetic disorders. Second is that Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, are the only two women to share a science Nobel prize in the history of the awards.
In an article in C&EN earlier this year, my former STAT colleague Megha Satyanarayana wrote, “CRISPR is a young technology, and the sheer number of women in its ranks stands out in an industry that has struggled to address its lack of gender diversity.”
I reached out to three women leading biopharma and biotech companies for their perspectives on the chemistry award.
The news made me excited for Jennifer and Emmanuelle, for their accomplishment, for the recognition of women and science, and the recognition of basic science and its application to medicine.
I’m a molecular geneticist by training. Using single-celled organisms to learn about basic biology and then applying it to medicine is the thread of my career. CRISPR is something I can tangibly understand and feel and have had the luxury to work in that space.
It’s amazing to think about how new this technology is, and how it is already being recognized with a Nobel Prize.
Early in my career as a serial entrepreneur, I was a gene hunter — this was before the human genome was totally sequenced — looking for genes involved in various genetic diseases. Twenty-plus years later, it is exciting to have a technology like CRISPR that has the potential to correct mutations in genes we had identified in the 1990s.
I was part of the team that launched Editas, a company created to develop CRISPR therapeutics, and was the first employee, coming in as the chief operating officer, though for the first few years I had responsibility on both business and science operations. I met Jennifer Doudna early on, since she was a founder of company before stepping down because of the patent issues between UC Berkeley and the Broad Institute. Being able to help launch Editas was one of the most energizing times of my professional career.
The significance of this Nobel Prize can’t be understated. It’s critically important that our society get more people interested in science. We need it for progress, be it climate change or physics or treating cancer. Women make up 50% of the population but not yet 50% of scientists. Having people like Jennifer and Emmanuelle recognized for helping develop a breakthrough technology means they automatically become role models for younger women.
Jennifer is personable. She’s a mom. She tells great stories. I think she has become the voice of CRISPR because she is a great communicator and storyteller and has educated many on the great potential of CRISPR technology for its application in across medical and nonmedical application. I hope all of that trickles down to younger women who think, “If she did that, I can do that, too, without giving everything else up.”
It’s important to highlight that CRISPR emerged at an opportune time, when there was a resurgence of excitement around gene therapy and we had the tools to apply CRISPR. We had the chassis on which to put the CRISPR engine. If that discovery had been made 20 years earlier, I don’t think we would be where we are today.
Sandra Glucksmann is the president and CEO of Cedilla Therapeutics.
I was excited about the news from Stockholm for several reasons. First is that Tango Therapeutics couldn’t exist without CRISPR. Tango is based on an idea I have been thinking about for most of my career: using the genetic concept of synthetic lethality to discover new cancer drug targets. The precision and scalability of CRISPR made it possible to do what I, and many others, had long thought would unlock vast new possibilities for people with cancer.
I was also delighted that the prize went to two women. Looking at the history of Nobel prizes reveals that of the 916 winners, only 56 have been women, with the majority of those being literature and peace prizes. Just 19 winners have been women scientists.
Throughout my career, I have been asked to mentor women and participate in efforts to support women in science. That work is useful, but it’s also important just to have women in visible, impactful roles who are celebrated for their accomplishments. I felt the meaning of this most clearly talking to the poet and artist Ashley Bryant at his 90th birthday party. Ashley, a gay Black man who grew up in the rural South in the 1930s, told me, “If you have never seen someone who looks like you being who you could be, it’s very difficult to dream. It’s very difficult to imagine yourself as a poet if there are no poets in your world.”
Doudna and Charpentier, the 2020 Nobel laureates in chemistry, are part of creating that vision. Little girls, students, and women scientists all over the world can look at them and think, “They did this. I could, too.”
Barbara Weber is a physician and president and CEO of Tango Therapeutics.
I first heard about CRISPR when I was working for a big agriculture company in 2013 and quickly began to wonder how it might be applied to better ways to grow food. I believe that to solve food system problems you have to start at the very beginning, which is seeds and genetics.
CRISPR technology will answer many of the challenges that agriculture faces with climate change and the environment. Making precise changes to plant genomes will let us grow more plants on less land with less water, fertilizer, and pesticides, as well improve nutrition.
Of course, plant breeders have worked with the genetics of plants for centuries. But CRISPR is now the best technology by far to let us get seeds to express the personality or architecture that can address these kinds of issues.
When I heard the news that Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, I couldn’t stop smiling. They really deserve this award, not just for their discovery but because of the ways they have championed the technology and encouraged others to investigate it.
Our company, Inari, is honored to have Jennifer Doudna on its scientific strategy board, working to help us further our science and innovation. I know from my interactions with her that she’s passionate about the potential of gene editing and what it can do to benefit humankind, not just in medicine but in agriculture and beyond. Her vision and transparency about the technology is an inspiration to all, as is her keen desire to help female led companies, like Inari, achieve success.
Ponsi Trivisvavet is the CEO and director of Inari.