Gabbay Award honors researchers who developed groundbreaking genomic tool

Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Feng Zhang

Three researchers who developed a revolutionary tool that can target and modify specific genes in living cells will be presented the 17th Jacob Heskel Gabbay Award in Biotechnology and Medicine on Oct. 27 at Brandeis University. 

Feng Zhang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research and Hannover Medical School in Germany will share the $15,000 cash prize for their innovative research into genomic engineering. 

Each recipient has worked to develop the CRISPR/cas9 system, a cheap, easy and effective tool for editing DNA that works by targeting specific genes in living cells and deleting or modifying them. Doudna and Charpentier began developing the system while studying how bacteria defend themselves against viruses. 

CRISPRs, first observed in the 1980s, are short, repeated DNA sequences spaced throughout a genome that work with enzymes to target and cut out invading viral DNA.  Doudna observed that an enzyme called cas9 could attach to a specific string of letters in the viral DNA, programmed by a small RNA molecule. Together, Doudna and Charpentier reprogrammed the system so it could recognize and attach to any DNA sequences, not just viral sequences. 

Zhang, working independently, used the CRISPR/cas9 system to directly modify genes in cells, particularly, human cells, with a nucleus containing DNA.

The discovery’s impact on medicine could be huge. Imagine being able to delete BRCA 1, the gene closely linked to breast cancer, or the gene that causes Huntington’s disease. The CRISPR/cas9 system puts scientists one step closer to being able to cure genetic disorders.  

These researchers have taken an esoteric observation and turned it into a precise genetic engineering capability with wide ranging applications, especially as a potential human therapeutic tool,” says Dagmar Ringe, professor of biochemistry and chemistry, and chair of the Gabbay Award committee.   

The Gabbay Award was created by the Jacob and Louise Gabbay Foundation, and is given in recognition of scientists in academia, medicine or industry whose work has outstanding scientific content and significant practical consequences in the biomedical sciences. The recipients present a lecture on their work, followed by a dinner at which the award and medal are presented.   

The lecture will take place Monday, Oct. 27 at 3:30 PM in Gerstenzang 121. 

Categories: Research, Science and Technology

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