Emmanuelle Charpentier, the genome editor

Biochemist, Emmanuelle Charpentier was recently awarded the Louis-Jeantet Prize For Medicine and listed as one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine. Her discovery, the CRISPR-Cas9, is a gene-editing technology that could revolutionize medical treatments in ways we can only begin to imagine.

The most precise gene-editing tool

Marking an incredible leap forward in the long history of genome studies, Emmanuelle Charpentier and her lab partner, scientist Jennifer Doudna, jointly discovered CRISPR-Cas9 (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). Behind this name, which sounds like something from a sci-fi novel, is a technology that works like a pair of molecular scissors, allowing to precisely snip the genetic code, letter by letter, along with the programmable enzyme Cas9 able to perform a cut on a double DNA strand. This is a never-before-reached level of precision in genome studies. And one Emmanuelle Charpentier claims could change everyone’s life : 

I am excited about the potential of our findings to make a real difference in people’s lives. The discovery demonstrates the relevance of basic research and how it can transform application in bioengineering and biomedicine.  

With the CRISPR-Cas9 Charpentier hopes to prove that bacteriology, far from being an old over-studied subject, can lead to further scientific progress.

A discovery that raises as many questions as possibilities

While the scientific community agrees that CRISPR-Cas9 is a revolution, the stakes are so high that the question of what’s next seems a difficult one to answer. The technology could be the key to eradicate certain viruses like HIV, haemophilia or Huntington, to screen for cancer genes or to undertake genome engineering. The latter obviously raises moral and ideological issues. The recent scientific article « CRISPR/Cas9-mediated Gene Editing In Human Tripronuclear Zygotes » published by Protein Cell reports the first experiment on a foetus by a team of scientists in China, and illustrates the potential dangerous consequences of CRISPR-Cas9 on future generations. Nature & Science refused to publish this experiment, mainly for ethical reasons. This question of ethics reminds us that science and society cannot be isolated from one another.

Science calls for perpetual motion

Change, to Emmanuelle Charpentier, is the only way to keep a fresh eye on her projects. As a French scientist, she has worked in many countries around the world and needs to regularly change her working environment but also the theme of her research. Her love for change also comes from her strong will to stay independent and not be attached to any scientific institution. This perpetual movement and her passion for science prevented her from having children but she has no regrets. She sees herself as a scientist before a woman and regrets the positive discrimination in the university recruitment phase.

Science discovery comes from teamwork

When discussing her work and awards, Emmanuelle Charpentier always underscores that her discoveries rely on teamwork, contrary to the cliché of the lonely scientist. 

This recognition highlights the efforts of a team of young and enthusiastic researchers with whom I thrive to understand the mechanisms of life for the benefit of scientific knowledge and human medicine.

A model of scientific excellence

Her recent Louis-Jeantet Prize For Medicine comes after many others: the Paul Janssen Prize, the Gabbay Prize. Some predict Charpentier could be the next Medicine Nobel Prize winner. But in any case, she is already an example for young women and living proof that science can be a fun career option: « Emmanuelle Charpentier is really a pioneering example for young scientists, especially women in science » says Marianne Sommarin Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Umeå University. « Time magazine’s recognition of Emmanuelle Charpentier again shows that one of the world’s most influential individuals can also find at our university excellent research conditions which are needed for making fantastic discoveries » says Lena Gustafsson, Vice-Chancellor of Umeå University.

Emmanuelle Charpentier studied biochemistry and microbiology at the University Pierre-and-Marie-Curie in Paris, and received her PhD in microbiology for her research performed at the Pasteur Institute. She spent five years working in the US, where she held Research Associate positions at the Rockefeller University, the New York University Langone Medical Center, the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine and St Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She returned to Europe to establish her own research group at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories of the University of Vienna in Austria, where she habilitated in the field of Microbiology.

Photo Credit: Helmholtz / Hallbauer&Fioretti

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