Reinventing genetic research


© Thierry Bouët for L'Oréal Foundation.
Professor Jennifer Doudna, 2016 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate.
© Thierry Bouët for L'Oréal Foundation
18 April 2016

“Collaborations have been a crucial part of the success of my scientific research throughout my career”, explains Professor Jennifer Doudna. “Indeed, collaboration defines the modern mode of scientific research.” Her collaboration with Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier has led to the development of ground breaking new technology that has set the scientific world on fire, reinventing genetic research and making it possible to perform microsurgery on DNA. In 2016, both researchers received a l’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award in recognition of their achievements – Jennifer Doudna is the 2016 laureate for North America while Emmanuelle Charpentier is the laureate for Europe.

We are only just beginning to grasp the full impact of this extraordinary new gene editing technology, known as CRISPR-Cas9, which is opening up untold prospects in gene therapy, cell therapy, immunotherapy – and research. Professor Jennifer Doudna and Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier each contributed key insights to its development.

Professor Doudna is a world renowned structural biologist and understanding RNA, a close cousin of DNA, has long been her forte. Back in 2005 she was asked to have a look at intriguing repeating regions of DNA in bacteria called CRISPR sequences. In 2011, French microbiologist, Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier asked her to collaborate. Professor Charpentier had already published important work showing that bacteria were effectively able to vaccinate themselves against types of virus that they had already encountered using a CRISPRCas system.

Together, Doudna, with her profound knowledge of RNA and Charpentier, with her CRISPR-Cas insight, published findings demonstrating that the mechanism used by bacteria to disable their foes could be adapted as a programmable precision genetic tool to modify genes in cells and organisms.

Doudna quickly realized that gene editing raised many potential ethical concerns. She has also been at the forefront of ensuring that these concerns are properly debated and understood. In particular she has pointed out potential concerns posed by so called ‘germ line editing’, that is affecting future generations by altering sequences in either sperm or egg.

As one of two 2016 Laureates sharing credit for the same discovery, this immensely important breakthrough provides the ideal example of what scientists achieve when working together.
The disparities between men and women in science are still considerable today. Through the For Women in Science Programme, UNESCO and the L’Oréal Corporate Foundation seek to recognise women researchers who, through the scope of their work, have contributed to overcoming the global challenges of tomorrow. A manifesto for women in science was launched in Paris at the close of the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award ceremony, to draw attention to the need to ensure gender parity in science. Join the movement for women in science, sign the manifesto.