Drs. Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer A. Doudna, and Feng Zhang were announced today (June 19) as joint winners of the 2016 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science “for the development of CRISPR/Cas9 as a breakthrough genome editing platform that promises to revolutionize biomedical research and disease treatment.”
Announcing the prize in Biopharmaceutical Science was former Academia Sinica President and 1986 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Yuan Tseh Lee. Lee was joined at the announcement table by Vice President of the Academia Sinica Andrew H.-J Wang, Dr. Yun Yen of Taipei Medical University, Academicians Wen-Chang Chang and Hsing-Jien Kung, and Tang Prize Foundation CEO Jenn-Chuan Chern.
As noted by Wang, CRISPR has been known and studied for more than twenty years, though only recently was it applied to genetic editing. A Japanese team discovered clusters of repeated sequences in certain bacteria in 1987; these later became known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). It was later discovered that these repeats were part of a bacterial defense system. Small pieces of viral DNA (spacers between the repeats) were “memorized” in the bacterial genome to aid in recognition and defense against dangerous bacteriophages. RNAs transcribed from CRISPR would help identify the threatening virus, and nucleases encoded by CRISPR -associated (Cas) genes would then be responsible for “cutting” the virus, rendering it harmless.
Though the discovery began as an obscure mystery, recent research into the mechanisms by the three awardees has caused an explosion of scientific work. Charpentier was the first to identify the two RNA species which guide Cas9 to the target gene, essentially the “find” command in this editing platform. Doudna, working with Charpentier, streamlined the editing system by showing that these two RNAs can be linked together to become a programmable single guide RNA. Meanwhile, working independently, Zhang first reported the successful adaption of Cas9-based genome editing in mammalian and human cells.
Yen Yun compared the system built by these three scientists to a digital word processor, which comes with functionalities like “find and replace.” And like the advance from typewriter to word processor, the new gene editing system is quick, efficient, and precise—much more so than its previous incarnations. Kung said that in comparison to genome editing mechanisms like zinc finger nucleases and TALENS, the CRISPR/Cas9 system is far superior in terms of time and efficiency.
The possibilities for genetic editing are immense, added Lee, from drug testing and trials to inheritable disease prevention. But the results may be seen most quickly and noticeably in agriculture. Using this technology wisely, it would be possible to modify crops resistant to the stresses of weather, pests, and diseases. Also, with the genome editor, it would be possible to make crops more palatable for human digestion. Yen Yun added that it is not a replacement for nature, thought it can correct those pieces of our DNA that lead to inheritable diseases. Human beings will still need to respect the delicate balance of ecological and sociological systems. “Alongside the ability to edit our genes, social equality must be respected,” Lee argued.
As Kung finished his introduction to the joint awardees, he noted that this revolutionary technology is at this very moment being used to improve various aspects of human health, and that the future of the platform is limited “only by imagination.”
Following the announcements in Sustainable Development and Biopharmaceutical Science, the Tang Prize in Sinology and Rule of Law will be announced on June 20 and 21. Recipients for all fields will be given the medal, diploma, and cash prize at the award ceremony on September 25 in Taipei.