Doudna receives Women in Science Award from L’Oreal-UNESCO

UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna, who invented a gene-editing tool that has taken the research world by storm, was named one of five laureates of the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards in the field of life sciences.

Jennifer Doudna

Jennifer Doudna (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

The awards, given annually to one female scientist from each of five continents, were announced Oct. 2 in Paris by the L’Oréal Foundation and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, which partner on the award.

Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology, and the other laureates will be honored at a ceremony on March 24, 2016, at the Sorbonne University’s Grand Amphitheatre in Paris. Each laureate will receive €100,000.

Doudna, the laureate from North America, is joined by European laureate Emmanuelle Charpentier. Doudna and Charpentier together discovered a unique technique used by bacteria to cut and kill viral DNA, and reengineered this system to cut any type of DNA, including human. First reported in 2012, the technology is being used worldwide to create potential genetic therapies for inherited disease, and in basic research to discover the causes of disease.

The 2016 laureates “bring an extraordinary vision and immediate solutions to major human health issues, encompassing HIV, avian flu or dengue fever,” said Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, the president of the awards jury and professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UC San Francisco, in a statement from the foundation. “Two laureates have revolutionized genome editing, enabling precise ‘rewriting’ of the DNA genetic code. All their careers are exceptional, their discoveries truly new, and they epitomize top-level research.”

The other laureates are:

  • Quarraisha Abdool Karim, a professor at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa, “for her remarkable contribution to the prevention and treatment of HIV and associated infections, greatly improving the quality of life of women in Africa.”
  • Hualan Chen, a professor at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, in China, “For her outstanding research into the biology of the bird flu virus, leading to the development and use of an effective vaccine.”
  • Andrea Gamarnik, a professor in the Molecular Virology Laboratory of the Fundación Instituto Leloir, Buenos Aires, Argentina, “for her seminal discoveries on how mosquito-borne viruses reproduce and cause human diseases, particularly Dengue Fever.”

Doudna is the second UC Berkeley scientist to receive the award. Jillian Banfield — professor of earth and planetary science; environmental science, policy and management; and materials science — was honored in 2011.

The foundation noted that even today, “much progress remains to be made for gender balance to become a reality in science. Women represent only 30 percent of the world’s researchers and multiple barriers continue to discourage young women around the world from pursuing a scientific career.”

In the 18 years since the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards were founded, 92 women have been recognized and two have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, including Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for work conducted at UC Berkeley.