Five researchers have received the annual Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research for their roles in developing a gene-editing tool that lets scientists alter the DNA of living cells.
The recipients are: Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Germany; Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley; Luciano Marraffini of The Rockefeller University in New York City; Francisco J.M. Mojica, University of Alicante in Spain; and Feng Zhang of MIT.
Each recipient gave brief acceptance remarks at Wednesday’s ceremony and took questions from audience members: Dr. Zhang told the gathering his passion for science began in middle school. "Moving to Iowa as immigrant from China, it was a very special place to have landed. People in Iowa welcomed us with open arms, even though we were immigrants from a different country. And I went to school and the teachers were incredibly nurturing." Zhang and the other researchers were recognized for their contributions related to the development of CRISPR-Cas9 . "Funding and supporting basic science research is rally critical."
The process enables scientists to edit genes by splicing out and replacing or altering sections of DNA in the cells of any organism, including humans. Dr. Marrafini calls CRISPR-Ca9 a fast, cheap and simple gene-editing tool that has sparked a boom in research. "With Cas9 in theory, CRISPR-Cas9, we could change every nucleotide of the human genome to every other nucleotide possible."
The editing technique has been compared to “cutting and pasting” words or pictures on a computer. Dr. Doudna says CRISPR could increase the nutritional value of food crops. "I think the biggest impact will be in agriculture...making, generating plants that are gonna be drought resistant, resistant to disease, et cetera."
CRISPR is an acronym coined a few years back by Dr. Mojica. It stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a DNA sequence found in the immune system of simple bacterial organisms. He pitched the new moniker to his wife: "Yeah when I changed the name I went home and I told her 'What do you think about CRISPR,' and she said, 'Hmmm, is good as a dog's name...'"
CRISPR-Cas9 has already revolutionized biological research in tens of thousands of laboratories worldwide. It could well be the elusive panacea medical science has longed for: Its potential future applications include the possible ability to cure genetic defects such as muscular dystrophy, cancer, and allow for pig organs to safely be transplanted into humans. Its uses are so varied that CRISPR is being used to alter butterfly wing patterns... some find the advances alarming... Doudna is among those raising ethical concerns: "My biggest fear in a nutshell is that somebody somewhere will rush ahead with this technology, whether it’s to create a CRISPR baby or use it in some other way that is dangerous or damaging either to the environment or to humans."
The $500,000 Albany Prize has been given annually since 2001 to people who have altered the course of medical research and is one of the largest prizes in medicine and science in the United States.