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08
Mar
2018

International Women's Day: Women in Science

                                                                                    Emmanuelle Charpentier, Hallbauer & Fioretti, Braunschweig, Germany

This International Women’s Day, we celebrate the incredible women responsible for pioneering CRISPR-cas9, a breakthrough in genome editing technology.  Dr Jennifer Doudna and Prof Emmanuelle Charpentier’s work made waves throughout science, medicine, and industry, revolutionising the possibilities of genome editing by bringing the tech into everyday use. To us at Cure Brain Cancer, their work emphasises the importance and power of collaboration in research. 

Dr Doudna (University of California, Berkeley) and Prof Charpentier (Max Planck Institute) began collaborating after crossing paths at the 2011 American Society for Microbiology conference in Puerto Rico. At the time, researching systems like CRISPR was a niche field, engaging only a handful of microbiologists and researchers. Dr Doudna came across CRISPR through researching how bacteria’s adaptive immune systems help them fight viral infections. Meanwhile, Prof Charpentier’s work at the University of Vienna investigating how bacteria cause infectious diseases, led her to CRISPR. 

Together, Dr Doudna and Prof Charpentier’s pioneering research determined the CRISPR-Cas9 mechanism in 2012, and how that same mechanism can be adapted to make precise cuts in DNA. In other words, they developed a system that made DNA editing not only possible, but relatively easy.

With this breakthrough, genome editing is now taking biomedical research by storm. CRISPR-Cas9’s potential applications range from the treatment of genetic diseases such as Huntington’s Disease, creating malaria-resistant mosquitos, the modification of food crops to allow them to survive a frost, and even cancer treatment. The tech is becoming ubiquitous in research, utilised daily in labs around the world.

In the lead up to International Women’s Day, we were lucky enough to conduct an interview with Prof Charpentier about her collaborative research with Dr Doudna. Her responses give an insight into how their shared interest and collaborative spirit brought these researchers together, making possible this remarkable step forward in genome editing. Happy International Women’s Day!

What motivated you to initially discuss your research with Dr Jennifer Doudna?

I was attending a meeting about RNA in bacteria where Jennifer and I both presented our data. I was at a stage of my research where my laboratory had identified tracrRNA, a component of the CRISPR-Cas9 immune system in bacteria and had demonstrated its interaction with the CRISPR RNA of the CRISPR-Cas9 complex (Cas9 known at the time as the Csn1 protein). I approached Jennifer at the end of our session to express to her my wish to have the crystal structure of the CRISPR-Cas9 complex resolved and the collaboration started some weeks later. I was mainly interested in exploiting the crystal structure data to minimize the CRISPR-Cas9 system for its applications in gene targeting.

 

What is the importance of international collaboration in science?

The CRISPR-Cas9 discovery and the development of applications around the technology are great examples of collaborations on the international level.

For today’s scientists, crossing borders between countries and disciplines is instrumental to help open new doors – which lead to both new questions and new answers.

What advice would you give to young women looking to pursue a career in science?

Never lose your curiosity!

Be authentic!

Safeguard your freedom!

For me, the secret behind great science is always hard work paired with curiosity for what you are working on, persistence and tenacity to not give up too quickly. Scientists need to be open to new questions and fields and be ready to take risky roads, and yes – there is also a bit of luck involved in every project. It is not an easy profession. But as one can see with the CRISPR-Cas9 research, it is worthwhile to keep going and follow your ideas, even though experiments may sometimes go wrong or there may be times where it becomes very hard. These qualities are independent of gender.

About Prof Emmanuelle Charpentier

Emmanuelle Charpentier studied biochemistry, microbiology and genetics at the University Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris, France and obtained her Ph.D. in Microbiology for her research performed at the Pasteur Institute, Paris, France. She then continued her work in the United States, at The Rockefeller University, New York University Langone Medical Center and the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine (all in New York, NY) and at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital (in Memphis, TN).

Emmanuelle returned to Europe to establish her own research group as Assistant and Associate Professor at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories of the University of Vienna in Austria where she habilitated in the field of Microbiology. She was then appointed Associate Professor at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS, part of Nordic European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Partnership for Molecular Medicine) at Umeå University in Sweden where she habilitated in the field of Medical Microbiology and was active as a Visiting Professor until 2017.

Between 2013 and 2015, Emmanuelle was Head of the Department of Regulation in Infection Biology at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, Braunschweig, and Professor at the Medical School of Hannover in Germany. In 2013, she was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, which she has held since 2014. In 2015, Emmanuelle was appointed Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society and Director of the Department of Regulation in Infection Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany.

Since 2016, Emmanuelle is Honorary Professor at Humboldt University. Emmanuelle has laid the foundation for the development of a novel, highly versatile and specific genome editing technology – CRISPR-Cas9 – that is revolutionizing life sciences research. For her groundbreaking discovery, she has received numerous prestigious international awards and distinctions, and is an elected member of national and international academies. She is cofounder of CRISPR Therapeutics and ERS Genomics.

 

About CRISPR-Cas9

CRISPR-Cas9 is essentially a system used by bacteria to combat viruses. The system allows the DNA of an infecting virus to be plucked out and stored in tiny pieces in the DNA of the bacterium, at a site called CRISPR. This acts as a genetic vaccination card, allowing cells to recognise the viruses they have been exposed to. Copies of the virus DNA are made by the bacterium and become attached to a protein called Cas9, which searches for any other free roaming virus DNA that might infect the bacterium, and cuts it up. 

Importantly, Cas9 is programmable. Dr Doudna and Prof Charpentier realised that Cas9 could be used as a genetic engineering technology, a way for scientists to delete or insert specific bits of DNA into cells with absolute precision. For more information on CRISPR-Cas9, click here to watch Dr Doudna’s TED talk about the technology and its impact on science, and society.

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