Dr Jennifer Doudna is a world-renowned scientist whose cutting edge research has led her to the discovery of 'CRISPR' an important tool which allows for and facilitates the 'cutting and pasting' of genes. Her remarkable discovery has revolutionised and simplified gene editing. Jennifer is presently Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Berkeley, California and holds the Li Ka Shing Chancellor's Professorship in Biomedical and Health Sciences.
Jennifer was born in Washington DC but, when she was seven years of age, her parents moved to Hawaii where her father taught American literature at the University of Hawaii. Growing up in such a beautiful environment with its rain forests and exotic plants and animals, she soon acquired a burning sense of curiosity about how nature works and wanted to understand nature's underlying biological mechanisms. Her father had a passionate interest in reading about scientific developments and, when Jennifer reached the sixth form at school, her father gave her a copy of 'The Double Helix' by James Watson of DNA fame. This further enthused her to pursue a career in science and she was admitted to Pamona College in California to study biochemistry. Having graduated with flying colours in 1985, she attended Harvard Medical School for her doctoral study, her PhD focusing on engineering a self-replicating catalytic RNA.
After Harvard her career led her to Yale in 1994 and then to the University of Berkeley, California in 2002. Her work focused mainly on large RNA structures and strove towards a mechanistic understanding of biological processes involving RNA. A couple of years later, however, in 2005 a particularly fortuitous event occurred. Jennifer was approached by Jillian Banfield, an environmental researcher at Berkeley, who had been sequencing the DNA of unusual microbes that lived in a highly acidic abandoned mine. In the genomes of many of these microbes were unusual repeating sequences called 'clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats' or the acronym 'CRISPR' for short! No one was very sure what these clusters did, but it appeared that they served as part of the bacterial immune system. Still puzzling over this question another fortuitous event occurred in Jennifer's life when, in 2011, she met Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist, at a conference in Puerto Rico. Emmanuelle was also studying the Streptococcus bacteria 'CRISPR', which she also believed to be an immune system, and the two experts with complementary disciplines soon became friends and collaborators. This collaboration bore enormous fruit and the duo was soon to make a spectacular discovery that would reduce the time and effort required to edit genomic DNA. They discovered that a protein named Cas9 found in the 'CRISPR' immune system operated like a pair of scissors to slice up the DNA of viruses. Very soon afterwards, in a second 'eureka' moment, the scientists realised that this cellular defence system CRISPR-Cas9 could be used, not just to kill attacking viruses, but to edit genomes. Pieces of DNA could be deleted or added just like a film editor might cut and splice frames of a film or a computer user might cut and paste by way of editing a document! And what is more, this cutting is effected with exceptional precision.
This amazing discovery has been described as 'one of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology'. In quick succession researchers found that the technique could be applied to mammalian cells, mice, plants and in early 2014, monkeys!
The pioneering work of Jennifer and Emmanuelle has since been further developed by many research groups for application to the treatment of diseases ranging from Sickle Cell Anemia, Cystic Fibrosis, Diabetes, Huntington's Disease, AIDS and HIV.
Naturally and deservedly, Jennifer's pioneering work has gained global recognition and many awards followed. Amongst others, she has been the recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2014), Gruber Prize in Genetics (2015), the Canada Gairdner International Award (2016), the Tang Prize in Taiwan (2016) and the Japan Prize (2017). She has also been recognised outside the scientific community by being named as one of the Time 100 most influential people in 2015 (with Emmanuelle) and listed as a runner-up for Time Person of the Year in 2016.
But all has not been entirely rosy. Two rival laboratories at Harvard and the Broad Institute were carrying out similar research and the Broad Institute claimed patent rights over the discovery. Legal battles still rage over the determination of this issue.
Jennifer's work has also given rise to important ethical issues. As she herself has readily recognised, the 'CRISPR' technique is readily amenable to abuse since it can be applied to modify human cells. Although this is forbidden in many countries including the USA, it is lawful in others including, I am led to understand, Hong Kong. The ethical argument is not easy to resolve. On the one hand, if properly used, the technique can be applied to edit embryonic genes to remove genetic defects. This would surely be good and desirable. The genes of babies who are genetically likely to develop life threatening or life impairing diseases could be modified to avoid such diseases. On the other hand, such a procedure is readily amenable to abuse. If legalised, it could lead to the spectre of ‘designer babies', babies designed to meet the desired specifications of their parents: indeed what we might designate as 'CRISPR' babies. This is scary and seems to run into the sphere of science fiction!
How does one summarise such an illustrious career - which I should add, is far from over. It must be remembered that Jennifer's ‘CRISPR' work is but one accomplishment in her stellar career. She produced a great deal of useful research on the structure of RNA before chance diverted her along the road of creating a tool for editing human genes. There is no doubt that her pioneering research, which has led to the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing tool, has revolutionised the fields of genetics, molecular biology and medicine.
I asked Jennifer what was the main purpose of and driving force behind her professional life and she modestly replied that it is to understand the chemistry of living systems and use those insights to advance human health.
Jennifer can be rightly proud of what she has achieved and her insights have undoubtedly proved of immense significance to advancing human health.
It is my honour and privilege to present to you Dr Jennifer Doudna for the award of Doctor of Science honoris causa.
Citation written and delivered by Professor Michael Wilkinson, the Public Orator of the University.