Thu | Nov 26, 2020

Marvadeen Singh-Wilmot | Science, networking and gender equality: Overcoming humanity’s greatest challenges

Published:Sunday | November 1, 2020 | 12:11 AM

CRISPR-Cas9-A
CRISPR-Cas9-A

In this March 2016 file photo, American biochemist Jennifer Doudna (left) and French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, pose for a photo. Charpentier and Doudna won the Nobel Prize 2020 in chemistry for developing a method of genome editing likened to
In this March 2016 file photo, American biochemist Jennifer Doudna (left) and French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, pose for a photo. Charpentier and Doudna won the Nobel Prize 2020 in chemistry for developing a method of genome editing likened to ‘molecular scissors’ that offer the promise of one day curing genetic diseases.
Marvadeen Singh-Wilmot
Marvadeen Singh-Wilmot
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The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on October 7, 2020, to a team of two women in science, Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French national from the Max Planck Institute in Berlin; and Dr Jennifer Doudna, an American working at the University of California, Berkeley. The team is rewarded for their work in developing CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing tool that permits the “cutting” of DNA to remove undesirable genes. Described as “genetic scissors,” this technology has significant potential for curing hereditary diseases like sickle cell, blindness, and some cancers.

In Jamaica, the most common hereditary disease is sickle cell, affecting one in every 150 Jamaicans, with one in every 10 carrying the genetic trait. Many Jamaicans will, therefore, be happy to hear that preliminary results of clinical trials in Nashville, Tennessee, show that CRISPR-edited cells have the potential to eliminate the symptoms of sickle cell disease. Now CRISPR is not the first gene-editing tool developed by scientists or even tested against sickle cell, but it is by far the most precise, easy to use, and low-cost approach. Over one hundred years since sickle cell was characterised, CRISPR-Cas9 is set to break major barriers to the clinical application of gene editing and bring relief from the morbidity and the mortality brought on by this disease.

REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY

The CRISPR toolbox is diverse. By engineering white blood cells that produce antibodies, it also has utility in combating viruses like influenza, HIV, and SARS-CoV-2. In addition, the scientists and their collaborators have successfully demonstrated a CRISPR-based COVID-19 test that detects SARS-CoV-2 in five minutes with the aid of a mobile phone. Plus, there is lots more! From engineering mosquitoes against malaria to robust crops that resist changing climate and brewer’s yeast that produce flavour molecules in beer, this revolutionary technology has moved from lab to life in record time since Charpentier and Doudna’s landmark scientific publication in 2012.

With unparalleled potential to make people’s lives better, CRISPR is poised to serve the true mission of science. However, it is probably as controversial as it is consequential, with serious implications if used in the wrong way, by the wrong people, for the wrong reasons. Do we limit its use to treating diseases? Can the genetic makeup of offspring be selected by parents? Designer babies? Where, if any, are the boundaries? Will there be equitable access at all layers of society?

Within the scientific community, these questions are highly debated, and the WHO has set up a multidisciplinary oversight panel to coordinate inputs from all stakeholders and develop “global standards for governance and oversight of human genome editing”. Safe and sustainable application of CRISPR-Cas9 is critical for mankind as the technology offers solutions to diseases, food security, and climate change, three of the global challenges that threaten our current existence on Earth.

But this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has not only broken barriers for humanity in its struggle for existence, it has also broken barriers to gender equality. The Charpentier-Doudna duo is the first woman-only team to win the Nobel Prize, and these two females are only the sixth and seventh women in history to have won Chemistry’s highest award. This translates to only 3.8% of the 186 Chemistry Nobel Laureates awarded since 1901. So Charpentier and Doudna have beaten the odds. In fact, Dr Doudna recalls her school counsellor telling her as a child that women did not do science. While this was not a deterrent to her, the “masculinity of science” has certainly promoted gender stereotypes and contributed to the gender gap in STEM-related areas.

Women like Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and Dr Andrea Ghez, who shared this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, are bridging this gap, their stories demonstrating three factors that are critical to solving humanity’s greatest challenges: science, networking, and gender equality.

- Dr Marvadeen Singh-Wilmot is a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, The University of the West Indies, Mona. Her research focuses on the development of new materials for use in biomedical diagnostics and environmental monitoring. Send feedback to marvadeen.singhwilmot@uwimona.edu.jm