This week, the The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 to two women scientists – the first time in history two women have shared the prize…

The scientists will get an equal share of 10 million Swedish kronor (around R18,7m).

According to the Academy, “Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors.”

The ‘scissors’ allow researchers to “change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision.”

Cancer therapy & curing inherited diseases

The ground-breaking technology has wide-ranging applications, including contributing towards cancer therapies.

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The scientists are also developing methods for repairing genes in large organs, such as the brain and muscles.

“Animal experiments have shown that specially designed viruses can deliver the genetic scissors to the desired cells, treating models of devastating inherited diseases such as muscular dystrophy, spinal muscular atrophy and Huntington’s disease. However, the technology needs further refinement before it can be tested on humans.

“It may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true,” said the Academy.

As so often in science, the discovery of these genetic scissors was unexpected

During Emmanuelle Charpentier’s studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, she discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA.

Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA. Charpentier published her discovery in 2011.

The same year, she initiated a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA. Together, they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use.

The pair met by chance at a café during a conference. After chatting about their work, they decided to explore the option of a collaboration.

Scissors ‘reprogrammed’

The scientists worked together on reprogramming the genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognise DNA from viruses, but Charpentier and Doudna proved that they could be controlled so that they can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life.