Jennifer A. Doudna, who grew up on the Big Island, became the second female scientist in two days with ties to that island to receive a Nobel Prize. She shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday with a French scientist for developing “molecular scissors” to edit genes, offering the promise of one day curing inherited diseases.
On Tuesday, astronomer Andrea Ghez, who has been using the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea since 1995, shared in the Nobel Prize for physics.
Doudna and Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier came up with a method known as CRISPR-cas9 that can be used to change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms. It was only the fourth time that a Nobel in the sciences was awarded exclusively to women, who have long received less recognition for their work than men in the prize’s 119-year history.
Doudna, 56, is a 1981 Hilo High School graduate whose family moved to Hilo when she was 7.
Her father, Martin Doudna, was an English professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, and her mother, Dorothy Doudna, taught history at Hawaii Community College, UH-Hilo says on its website.
During a Sept. 17, 2018, lecture titled “CRISPR Systems: Nature’s Toolkit for Genome Editing,” at UH-Hilo, she credited UH-Hilo biology professor emeritus Don Hemmes for igniting her curiosity about the living world and giving her the opportunity to work in his lab one summer.
“All of Hilo is in an uproar with some good news, finally,” Hemmes excitedly told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser by phone Wednesday. “I’ve been predicting for years she’s going to win the Nobel Prize.”
Hemmes and his wife were close friends of Doudna’s parents, both of whom did not live to see their daughter get the coveted award.
“Neither of her parents got to hear this great thing,” he said.
Hemmes said he told her father shortly before his death some years ago, “I think your daughter’s going to win the Nobel Prize,” after the groundbreaking work she had done in the research of RNA and before her work on CRISPR-cas9.
“When she was in high school, she came to my laboratory and worked with me,” he said. “She was so interested in everything, really a sharp student. I ran an electron microscope, where you can look inside cells. She was fascinated with that.”
After graduating from Hilo High, she went on to study at Pomona College in California and Harvard University.
Doudna told the crowd that packed the UH-Hilo lecture hall in 2018 that she and her sisters and best friend used to explore their Hilo neighborhood.
“A lot of things I saw around me — the plants and animals that occupy the environment that we have here in Hawaii kind of sparked my curiosity about how those organisms had evolved to survive and thrive in this very interesting environment,” she said.
But Hemmes allowing her to use the electron microscope helped her see that science was an incredibly interesting process. “I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and get to the lab to do the next experiment,” she said.
Doudna also said her father, who encouraged her to pursue her interest, gave her “The Double Helix,” a book about the study of the structure of DNA.
On Tuesday, Ghez, of the University of California, Los Angeles, shared in the Nobel Prize for physics for work studying a supermassive black hole in the Milky Way galaxy.
Charpentier and Doudna’s work allows for laser-sharp snips in the long strings of DNA that make up the “code of life,” enabling scientists to precisely edit specific genes to remove errors that lead to disease in humans — and is already being used for that purpose.
“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. “It has not only revolutionized basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to groundbreaking new medical treatments.”
Gustafsson said that, as a result, any genome can now be edited “to fix genetic damage.”
Dr. Francis Collins, who led the drive to map the human genome, said the technology “has changed everything” about how to approach diseases with a genetic cause, such as sickle cell disease.
“You can draw a direct line from the success of the human genome project to the power of CRISPR-cas to make changes in the instruction book,” said Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which helped fund Doudna’s work.
But many also cautioned that the technology raises serious ethical questions and must be used carefully.
Much of the world became more aware of CRISPR in 2018, when Chinese scientist He Jiankui revealed he had helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies, to try to engineer resistance to future infection with the AIDS virus. His work was denounced as unsafe human experimentation because of the risk of causing unintended changes that could pass to future generations, and he’s been sentenced to prison in China.
In September, an international panel of experts issued a report saying it’s still too soon to try to make genetically edited babies because the science isn’t advanced enough to ensure safety, but they mapped a pathway for countries that want to consider it.
Doudna told the Associated Press of her own surprise — including that she learned she’d won from a reporter.
“I literally just found out, I’m in shock,” she said. “I was sound asleep.”
“My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, who is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports AP’s Health and Science Department.
Charpentier, 51, said she was surprised to have won, after the award was announced in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
When asked about the significance of two women winning, she said that while she considers herself first and foremost a scientist, “it’s reflective of the fact that science becomes more modern and involves more female leaders.”
“I do hope that it will remain and even develop more in this direction,” she said, adding that it’s “more cumbersome to be a woman in science than to be a man in science.”
Three times a woman has won a Nobel in the sciences by herself; this is the first time an all-female team won a science prize. In 1911, Marie Curie was the sole recipient of the chemistry award, as was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1963. In 1983, Barbara McClintock won for medicine.
The breakthrough research done by Charpentier and Doudna was published in 2012, making the discovery very recent compared to much Nobel-winning research, which is often only honored after decades have passed.
Charpentier said despite how recently it was developed, the method is now widely used by scientists researching diseases, developing drugs and engineering new plants.
Among the most promising therapies already being developed are for eye diseases and blood disorders, such as sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia, she said. It also could have applications in the growing field of cancer immunotherapy.
The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and prize money of more than $1.1 million, courtesy of a bequest left more than a century ago by Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.
Honolulu Star-Advertiser staff writer Leila Fujimori contributed to this report.