Tag Archives: Nobel prize

The Man Who Wrote the Book on CRISPR and What He Taught Me

Kevin Davies literally wrote the book on CRISPR, the revolutionary new gene editing technology that earned Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier a Nobel Prize a few months ago. Today, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a talk he gave on that superb book, Editing Humanity.

If you’re not familiar, CRISPR is a technology based on the immune systems of bacteria. Bacteria find a particular genetic sequence they recognize from past infections and cut the genes in order to protect themselves. Scientists have harnessed this primordial system to cut and splice genes.

In today’s talk, Davies highlighted how accessible this revolutionary new technology really is. The equipment is not expensive and many labs could potentially use it. This presents great opportunities but also very real risks of misapplication.

CRISPR has been used successfully to treat sickle cell anemia in early trials. Davies noted that it has also been used to treat progeria in mice, which might some day bring an end to this deadly disease that ages children before their time.

I even got the opportunity to ask Davies a question, and inquired which other applications of CRISPR excite him most. He mentioned possible applications for cystic fibrosis and cancer therapy. He also said that as a graduate student in genetics, the idea of precisely editing genes seemed like science fiction, but today is a reality. It amazed me to think of how much the field has evolved.

Another interesting tidbit from the talk: due to COVID, Doudna accepted her Nobel Prize in the backyard of her home in Berkeley! I found that image to be quite a beautiful one.

One great silver lining of COVID has been how much easier it’s become to attend talks like this! In the past, one might have had to be in Cambridge, MA to attend, but now it’s open to everyone. I hope we continue to offer a remote option for these discussions even once in person events are possible again.

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Photo: “File:Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna.jpg” by For Emmanuelle Charpentier portrait, credit Bianca Fioretti of Hallbauer & Fioretti. For Jennifer Doudna portrait, credit User:Duncan.Hull and The Royal Society. is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

What I Learned From James Watson, Co-Discoverer of the Structure of DNA

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.

So begins the famous Nature paper by James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA in 1953. Their discovery revolutionized biology and won them both the Nobel Prize.

I just finished reading Watson’s book The Double Helix, and as a layman I found the inside view of the process of scientific discovery intriguing. What struck me most was the importance of collaboration.

We are used to thinking of scientists as lone geniuses hunched over a lab bench until they exclaim “Eureka!” But Watson’s book makes clear how important the many scientists surrounding him at the University of Cambridge were to his discovery. He repeatedly checks his findings with others more experienced than he in a particular area, like structural chemistry. And without the long conversations with Crick, the discovery would never have happened in the first place.

Being in the right environment was so important to Watson that he left the University of Copenhagen, against the terms of his fellowship, when he realized he needed the expertise of the Cambridge circle to make a real breakthrough. He did what was necessary and asked for permission later. What would’ve happened had he sat around waiting for permission?

The casual sexism with which Watson treats Rosalind Franklin, the expert in X-ray photography that wound up playing a major part in the discovery of the double helix, was striking to me reading the book in 2021. Watson tends to characterize her opinions and insights as obstinancy or rudeness. He doesn’t view his male colleagues the same way.

If cooperation is so critical to science, I can’t help but wonder what Watson could’ve achieved with a more collaborative attitude toward Franklin. Would the breakthrough have come even sooner? Would they have been able to make even more discoveries together if Watson had been more open to her expertise?

I loved getting a view of what is in a scientist’s mind as they make a major breakthrough. Watson was by no means certain he was right at first, but he worked methodically to prove what he suspected. That even such a genius has doubt in his ideas can cheer the rest of us!

The great chemist Linus Pauling had suggested a different structure of DNA, which turned out to be incorrect. But when he saw the elegance of Watson and Crick’s double helix, he was in awe and thrilled, rather than upset at being proven wrong.

I find that attitude to be one of the great things about science. There is both collaboration and competition, but in the end, everyone is working toward one goal: understanding.

In all, I found Watson’s book interesting and instructive. Since it was written in 1968, I’m not sure how many people are still reading it, but it’s worth a look. Check it out!

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What I Just Learned From a Discussion With Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna

Today I attended a fascinating discussion of the movie Human Nature, a documentary on CRISPR gene editing. Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna, the co-inventor of CRISPR, gave us her perspective on the technology. Author Walter Isaacson and the filmmaker, Adam Bolt, also gave valuable insights.

Isaacson framed the moment well, saying that CRISPR is part of the 3rd great scientific revolution. The first was in the first half of the 20th century, in physics. The 2nd, in information technology, consumed the second half of the century. And in the 21st century, the revolution is and will be in the life sciences.

Because CRISPR can make DNA and RNA programmable like computer code, there’s a strong parallel between CRISPR and the IT revolution. What if biology and medicine progressed the way software has in the last few decades?

Doudna is particularly excited about the applications of CRISPR to cure cancer. CRISPR can be used to program the patient’s immune cells to attack tumors. This echoes what the co-founders of BioNTech said earlier this week at a call I attended.

Bolt and Doudna also noted that CRISPR was a scientific backwater at first. This really emphasizes the importance of funding basic science with no clear application. We never know where it will lead!

The first patient to be treated for sickle cell anemia using CRISPR is doing quite well a year later. Doudna and others are hard at work on further applications of this technology. As an investor and as a human being, I am eagerly anticipating these breakthroughs.

“Jennifer Doudna” by Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen is licensed under CC BY 2.0