The scientists’ work allows for laser-sharp snips in long strings of DNA, permitting researchers to precisely edit specific genes to remove errors that lead to disease.
“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 groundbreaking new medical treatments.”
“My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology, and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, who is age 56 and works at the University of California at Berkeley.
But many have cautioned that the technology must be used carefully. In 2018, Chinese scientist 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 publicly condemned as unsafe human experimentation.
In September, an international panel of experts issued a report saying it’s 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 countries that want to consider it.
“Being able to selectively edit genes means that you are playing God in a way,” said American Chemistry Society President Luis Echegoyen, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
When asked about the significance of two women winning, Charpentier, 51, 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,” said Charpentier, who is the director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Germany.
The honor comes with a gold medal and prize money of about $1.1 million. The prize was created in 1901 from money given by Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize for physiology and medicine to Americans Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice and British-born scientist Michael Houghton for discovering the hepatitis C virus. Tuesday’s prize for physics went to Roger Penrose of Britain, Reinhard Genzel of Germany and Andrea Ghez of the United States for their breakthroughs in understanding the mysteries of cosmic black holes.
Nobel Prizes for outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics will be announced in the next five days.