• Saturday, May 25, 2024
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BusinessDay

How development of genome-editing scissors earned 2 women Nobel Chemistry laureate

Genome

There is almost no prize on the surface of the earth that Frenchwoman Emanuelle Charpentier and the US-American Jennifer Doudna haven’t clung.

Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Prize committee for Chemistry by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, described it as strange if they didn’t add this feather to their cap.

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to these two scientists for the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, the sharpest technological tool that can specifically separate any sequence in genome. The genome is a complete set of the human’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that is often described as the body’s instruction manual.

The greatest implication of this innovative genome editing method is the power to rewrite the code of life, Gustafsson said in an interview monitored by BusinessDay. It can practically correct genetic disorders in humans such as the sickle cell anaemia, a blood disorder that affects millions of people worldwide.

With the CRISPR/Cas9, scientists can cleave the stems that create new blood from the bone marrow of a patient, correct it for limitations, replace the cells, and get positive results.

The possibility that comes with the programmable scissors is that it can recognise a certain sequence. And once the DNA is sequenced, all sorts of tools can then be used to repair it and make the change that is necessary.

Human beings’ genomes are vast and as such, making changes to their function or correcting an error to achieve a crop with a different sort of property means one very specific side has to be cleaved.

“We had a sense in my early days working with Emmanuel that we were onto something big,” 2020 Chemistry Laureate Doudna said on the start of her research into CRISPR. “But I think we had no idea how big.”

When the Nobel Prize committee called her on her winning, Doudna thought she was called to comment on another person’s winning.

She spoke of how amazing the extraordinary work going on around the world with the technology is, saying she is particularly pleased about doing her gender proud through it.

She said there is a sense among women and girls sometimes that no matter what they do, their work would not be recognized as it would if they were a man.

“I hope that this prize changes that a little bit and that it’s encouraging to other women who are in science or even in other fields to realise that their work can be honoured and can have a real impact whether or not it’s a Nobel Prize. Women have a role to play,” she said.

Christian Happi, one of the scientists leading Nigeria’s genome sequencing who is familiar with the two latest Nobel Laureates, described their winning as beautiful and great for women.

“It is beautiful. Jennifer Doudna is someone I know very well. It is great for women. It shows that women can do as much as men,” he said.

Besides editing disorders in human beings, researchers can equally repair the DNA of animals, plants and micro-organisms with very high precision.

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Charpentier, a French microbiologist, and Doudna, an American biochemist, are the first women to jointly win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the sixth and seventh women to win the Chemistry prize.

The pair of scissors was first introduced eight years ago and has been used as standard tool in basic science numerously, with development occurring on their variants.

It is projected that sometime in the future, the application of the technology will develop to a point where correcting large organs like the liver or heart will be veered into.

But in the short term, it will mainly help to correct haematopoietic cells in people with serious disorders that bring lifelong suffering.

Although it’s still in the early days of rising practical applications, Gustafsson raised the need to guide the handling of the powerful tool with great caution.

“It needs to be properly regulated and used responsibly. This year’s laureates have been engaged in that. There is a network of rules and permissions that you need to have,” he cautioned.

The technology is still very much a subject of ethical scrutiny as moral pointers, such as making inherited changes, are still highly debated. In China, for instance, He Jiankui, a scientist, was jailed for creating the world’s first genetically edited babies.

How near is Africa to this prize?

Happi, a Harvard-trained chief of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), reckoned that how soon Africa will cling this prize has much to do with the continent putting its money where its mouth is.

“Africa has to invest. When you don’t invest in science, how do you expect you will have a Nobel Prize? The prize doesn’t come by sympathy. It comes with hard work and good science. Good science comes with investment in science,” Happi said.

In Africa, analysis of genomes is in the region of understanding ancient migrations, modern vulnerability and resistance to diseases, revealing unexpected genetic diversity.

A new research published in the journal Nature on sequences from more than 400 people from the African continent is part of an attempt to address an imbalance in the genetic data available worldwide, most of which come from people of European ancestry.

In Nigeria, the capacity to generate essential genomic data for pharmaceutical productions that suit the medical needs of Africa’s genetic framework is gradually gaining impetus on investors’ growing interest in the development of local molecular medicine.

Apart from the business side of it, the investments are pushing the common goal of building a robust base of genetic resources that Nigeria and Africa in general have missed for decades.