What at first sounds like a weird cereal brand, is in fact one of the most groundbreaking discoveries in bioscience: CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.) It is a tiny molecular structure that bacteria use to fight viruses. Almost like an intelligent pair of genetic scissors can it detect and destroy “enemy” cells. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna found out, that those genetic scissors could be rebuilt and basically used on any organism.
CRISPR is universal and precise tool for so-called genome editing: genetic mutations can be cut out, defect sequences in our DNA can be replaced, immune cells can be edited to kill certain viruses … the possibilities of CRISPR seem endless. Plus, it’s cheap. They published their discovery 2012 in Science magazine, already one year later it was named as one of the top ten scientific achievements. Jennifer Doudna was already a well-known biochemist at that time, Charpentier on the other hand thought about quitting science and opening a crepe-shop.
What is Crispr? How does genome editing work? Here is a short video showing and explaining what's going on in our DNA.
In 2015 Time magazine put her on their list of 100 most influential personalities. Over the last 2 years she got 19 awards for her research. It was a dream come true for Emmanuelle Charpentier, a microbiologist without a permanent position for most of her career. Today CRISPR is used by scientists all over the world. According to the German newspaper ZEIT, 72 patents including CRISPR are registered, 774 more are still pending. Charpentier and Doudna did not get a patent.
The US patent office gave the patent to Feng Zhang, a scientist from the Broad Institute, Massachusetts. Although Zhang filed his application months after Charpentier and Doudna, he got “accelerated examination”, meaning that his application was actually viewed first. In addition, the US patent office cannot register intellectual property, so “just” the discovery of CRISPR as a gene editing tool doesn’t count as it is not an invention per se. Zheng on the other hand included experiments that adapted CRISPR to be used on mammal cells, which apparently counts as an invention.
Charpentier and Doudna are currently appealing against the decision of the US patent office, as well as the European patent office. As long as the patent dispute goes on, the chances on a Nobel prize are low. The committee is not a big fan of conflict. Still Charpentier is held as a favourite for the Nobel prize in chemistry. This year’s winners Bernard Feringa, Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Fraser Stoddart got the prize for developing the first molecular machines – 22 years after their first invention, so maybe she just has to wait for a few more decades.
But with or without a Nobel prize: Emmanuelle Charpantier revolutionized genetics. Now it is up to the geneticists to use her tool, CRISPR, for good. Who knows? Maybe ten years from now all monogenic diseases, AIDS and cancer can be cured with a single cut in our DNA.
If you want to find out more about CRISPR, you can watch Jennifer Doudna's TED-Talk about the possibilities, but also boundaries of genome editing here.