U.S. geneticist lauds importance of Tang Prize(Focus Taiwan)

  • American geneticist Jennifer Doudna, one of this year's three recipients of the Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science, said the most enjoyable aspect of her work has been tackling the challenges in her laboratory experiments.
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(Focus Taiwan)


Los Angeles, June 18 (CNA) American geneticist Jennifer Doudna, one of this year's three recipients of the Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science, has lauded the prize as a "great way" to highlight the role of fundamental research in human health and life sciences.

Doudna won the 2016 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science, along with two other people, for "the development of CRISPR-Cas9 as a breakthrough genome-editing platform that promises to revolutionize biomedical research and disease treatment."

"I feel the Tang Prize is a great way to highlight the role of fundamental research in advancing human health and the life sciences in general," said Doudna, 52, who is a professor of chemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Citing her own experience, she said a lot of the work done by her and her team has focused on basic questions in biology.

"And every now and then, that understanding leads to new ideas and new ways to harness nature for technologies," she added.

"That's certainly true with the CRISPR genome-editing technology," which came from a fundamental science project that was aimed at understanding how bacteria fight viral infections, she said in a recent interview with CNA.

The biennial Tang Prize was established by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin (尹衍樑) in 2012 to complement the Nobel Prize and award those who have made outstanding contributions in four fields: sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology, and rule of law. The first Tang Prize award ceremony was held in 2014.

The other two winners in the category of biopharmaceutical science this year are French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin and Chinese-American synthetic biologist Feng Zhang (張鋒) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

Doudna and Charpentier are credited with creating CRISPR-Cas9, which enables scientists to remove or add genetic material at will. Zhang, meanwhile, has made his mark by showing how CRISPR-Cas9 edits genes in human and mouse cells.

The CRISPR technology allows scientists to make changes to DNA and cells that could lead to the treatment of genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia and muscular dystrophy, according to Doudna.

In a TED Talk she gave in 2015, Doudna predicted that the first applications of the CRISPR technology will happen in the blood, "where it's relatively easier to deliver this tool into cells, compared to solid tissues."

"I think that we will see clinical application of this technology, certainly in adults, within the next 10 years," she said.

In addition to medical treatment, the CRISPR technology could also have other uses, such as enhancement of human features; for example, changes to DNA and cells could help people have stronger bones and other desirable characteristics, such as certain eye colors or height, she said.

This, however, raises a number of ethical questions that require careful consideration, she added.

Doudna has called for a global pause in any clinical application of the CRISPR technology in human embryos, to provide time for careful consideration on all of the various implications of doing so.

She is scheduled to attend the Tang Prize award ceremony on Sept. 25 in Taipei. Winning the prize adds another honor to her list of awards.

Earlier this year, Doudna, Charpentier and Zhang won the Canada Gairdner International Award.

In 2015, Doudna and Charpentier were listed among Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, based on their development of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique.