Doudna receives Canada’s Gairdner Award as CRISPR sweeps field

Jennifer Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry, will share the 2016 Canada Gairdner International Awards with four others for their roles in discovering and re-engineering the CRISPR-Cas9 system to create today’s most-talked-about genetic tool.

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Awards week for Doudna

Doudna is in Paris this week to receive a L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science award, and also this week was named one of four Allen Distinguished Investigators by the Paul G. Allen Frontier Group. The new award, announced in Washington, D.C. on March 23, comes with $1.5 million to investigate the antiviral machinery in bacteria and use bacteria’s tricks to improve current genome editing technology.

The awards, among the world’s most prestigious honors for medically significant discoveries, were announced March 23 in Toronto. Each award winner will receive $100,000 Canadian, and will be honored at a dinner in Toronto on Oct. 27 as part of a two-week lecture series by the winners at universities throughout Canada.

All five honorees were lauded for their roles in discovering the CRISPR system in bacteria, which microbes use to defend themselves from viruses, and for adapting the bacterial system for use in all cells to cut and paste DNA.

According to the foundation’s announcement, the CRISPR-Cas9 technology “is transforming the fields of molecular genetics, genomics, agriculture and environmental biology” because of its effectiveness in editing the genomes of animals, plants, fungi and bacteria.

“This year’s international winners are an exceptional example of the future of gene editing which is taking the research world by storm,” said John Dirks, president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation.

Doudna, the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at UC Berkeley, and two others were singled out for the “development of CRISPR-CAS as a genome editing tool for eukaryotic cells.”

Her co-winners are Emmanuelle Charpentier, director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin and a professor at Umeå University in Sweden, with whom Doudna first reported that a re-engineered CRISPR system could be used to edit genes outside of bacteria; and Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who “pioneered the development of the microbial CRISPR-Cas system as genome editing tools … in eukaryotic cells,” according to the Gairdner Foundation.

Two other researchers – Rodolphe Barrangou of North Carolina State University in Raleigh and Philippe Horvath of DuPont in France – received the award for discovering how the CRISPR-Cas system works in bacteria to defend them against viruses.

The foundation gave two more awards, to Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Frank Plummer, a researcher at the Public Health Agency of Canada, for work in the HIV/AIDS field.

The Canada Gairdner Awards were created in 1959 to recognize and reward the achievements of medical researchers whose work contributes significantly to improving the quality of human life. For more details, read the Gairdner Foundation announcement.