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Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded to two women for the first time

CRISPR could help rid of diseases like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and even HIV and cancer
Promise and peril of gene-editing technology CRISPR 06:56

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to two scientists for developing a gene-editing tool. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna are the first two women to ever share the prize, BBC News reports.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Wednesday that Charpentier, who is French, and Doudna, an American, were awarded the prize for developing the CRISPR-cas9 genetic scissors. 

"Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision," says a press release. "This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true."  

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna celebrate on the stage after receiving the 2015 Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research in 2015.  MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images

The academy says since the women discovered the CRISPR-cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 their use has exploded and has lead to other important discoveries. 

Using the CRISPR- cas9 genetic scissors made once time-consuming and sometimes impossible work easier and "it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks," the press release reads. Thanks to the scissors, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are now underway.

"There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all," Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said. "It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments." 

Charpentier unexpectedly discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA, and after publishing her discovery in 2011 she began collaborating with Doudna. Together, they discovered the CRISPR-cas9 genetic scissors.

CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats, has gotten attention and scrutiny, and some scientists have called for a moratorium on its use. 

The CBSN Originals documentary "Playing God" looked at the potential implications of the discovery.

Playing God: What happens when everyone can change their DNA? 24:22

According to Charpintier, "It's like a kind of film strip. The person responsible can edit the fate and the story of a life of a cell, an organism, with this technology."

It could help get rid of diseases like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and even HIV and cancer. 

Doudna said in a news release Wednesday from UC Berkeley that the technology gives new hope and possibility to society. 

"What started as a curiosity-driven, fundamental discovery project has now become the breakthrough strategy used by countless researchers working to help improve the human condition," she said. "I encourage continued support of fundamental science as well as public discourse about the ethical uses and responsible regulation of CRISPR technology."

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