from Fast Company
This week Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a process to edit DNA known as CRISPR Cas-9. But the announcement, which comes amid a years-long battle over who owns the methodology to make genomic edits, is bittersweet.
CRISPR Cas-9 is based on an immune system response in bacteria that literally cuts out invaders. In the last decade scientists, including Doudna and Charpentier, have figured out a way to repurpose the same function to edit out undesirable genetic mutations. The discovery has sparked a lot of hand-wringing over how the technology will evolve and the ethics of using such a tool to create perfect humans.
Doudna and Charpentier met at a conference in 2011 when Charpentier, an expert in bacterial systems who had published on CRISPR, was working at Umea University in Sweden. Doudna was a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley with a budding interest in the system. In their first year working together, they published a paper laying out how to use CRISPR Cas-9 to make changes to DNA. Doudna went on to publish a paper in 2013 using the same technique to make gene edits in animal cells. But Feng Zhang, a scientist at the Broad Institute, MIT’s genomic research center, had published a similar paper four weeks earlier, making him the first to prove the tool could be used in human cells. This was the beginning of what has become a years-long legal battle over who owns the CRISPR Cas-9 editing system.