Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Jennifer Doudna Hasn't Won the Nobel Prize - Yet

But she will.

Only a generation or so ago, a Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist could confidently announce that it would never be possible to edit a genome. However, it turns out that the engineering department of molecular biology - bacteria - have been doing it for ages. The discovery of the so-called Crispr Cas9 system has revolutionized gene editing, and is in the process of unleashing a torrent of genetically modified organisms on the world.

Jennifer Kahn has a great story about Doudna and Crispr in The New York Times of Nov 9.

The tool Doudna ultimately created with her collaborators paired Crispr’s programmable guide RNA with a shortened tracer RNA. Used in combination, the system allowed researchers to target and excise any gene they wanted — or even edit out a single base pair within a gene. (When researchers want to add a gene, they can use Crispr to stitch it between the two cut ends.) Some researchers have compared Crispr to a word processor, capable of effortlessly editing a gene down to the level of a single letter.

Even more surprising was how easy the system was to use. To edit a gene, a scientist simply had to take a strand of guide RNA and include an ‘‘address’’: a short string of letters corresponding to a particular location on the gene. The process was so straightforward, one scientist told me, that a grad student could master it in an hour, and produce an edited gene within a couple of days. ‘‘In the past, it was a student’s entire Ph.D. thesis to change one gene,’’ says Bruce Conklin, a geneticist at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco. ‘‘Crispr just knocked that out of the park.’’

It's widely agreed that Crispr is a revolutionary technology, and Doudna and Charpentier (another key player) have already collected $3 million Breakthrough Prizes. So why no Nobel? In addition to the Nobel committee's notorious conservatism, the favorite theory is the existence of a giant patent dispute between Doudna's Berkeley lab and the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute, where Feng Zhang has collected an impressive number of Crispr patents.

There is little doubt about the fundamental role of Doudna in the science, and Zhang has also done crucial work, but the winner take all approach of the patent system really makes this a mess. The amount of cash at stake is truly enormous - this could be a multi-trillion dollar technology.