MADAM’ Moment in Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the Year 2020
The Nobel Prize in chemistry, 2020 was announced yesterday and it has been awarded to ‘Madam’ scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for their pioneering work on the development of CRISPR tool for gene editing, a discovery that holds out the possibility of curing genetic diseases. This years Nobel Prize in Chemistry is an extraordinary moment for the global scientific community since it is a rarity that Nobel Prizes are awarded exclusively for lady scientists. This historic ‘Madam’ moment is significant considering the fact that the Nobel club is majorly populated by gentlemen scientists, particularly in the field of sciences and that there are only seven scientists including Marie Curie - winner of two Nobel Prizes, and her daughter Irene Juliet Curie and this years winners Charpentier and Doudna, among the 182 scientists who have received this coveted Nobel prize in Chemistry till date.
The word ‘Madam’ used in the caption of my article in a way is quite significant for this years Chemistry Nobel prize. It reveals the very nature of the works for which the two Madam scientists - Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, have received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and will share the prize money of 10 Million Sweedish Krones. They have been awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize Prize in Chemistry for this year, in recognition of their scientific research, which has led to the development of a technological tool that can be used for editing the very book of life - Genome editing. Their discovery, known as CRISPR-Cas9, helps researchers to make specific and precise modifications to the DNA contained in living cells. The term CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeat. Palindromic represents a word or a sentence, which reads the same both backward and forward. Take for example the word ‘Madam’, used specifically in the title of the article. It reads the same when read both ways ; forward and backwards. The two Nobel ‘Madam’ laureates have harvested the fundamental scientific understanding of this naturally occurring palindromic biochemistry phenomenon - a region of DNA in which the sequence of nucleotides is identical with an inverted sequence in the complementary strand (GAATTC is a palindrome of CTTAAG), to develop their CRISPR - CAS9 technique. The CRISPR/Cas9 is a gene-editing tool that can be used to remove, add, or change a portion of the DNA sequence of a target gene of interest. It is based on a quintessential “cut-and-paste” mechanism, which we routinely use in our document editing, in which the enzyme Cas9 is guided toward a specific DNA region with the help of a small guide RNA molecule. This path breaking technique and use of the guide RNA has opened up a revolutionary way forward for harvesting immeasurable applications of this technology, which are destined to present themselves in the form of therapeutic medicines for genetic disorders like the sickle cells, haemophilia etc.
According to a recent report (5th October 2020), Genome Editing Market by Application (Cell Line Engineering, Animal Genetic Engineering, Plant Genetic Engineering), the market valuation of this CRISPR - CAS 9 and other similar technologies, is estimated to be valued at around 10 Billion US Dollars by 2026. It is also estimated that there will be an increase in government support for the biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the better treatment of genetic diseases using this technique. Industry captains are certain that this technology will lead to a paradigm shift in investments in the field of genetic engineering and that its impact will be felt across biomedical research, clinical medicine, agriculture and wider society, besides its potential to treat or prevent human diseases particularly the genetic disorders. The current Covid 19 pandemic will accentuate the governmental support and investment in such technologies. India in a way is a leading global manufacturer of vaccines. It is one of the major countries which the global community is looking towards for mass manufacturing of vaccines and such other pharmaceutical products that can reach a vast population. Therefore it is earnestly hoped that the benefits of this technology, which have already began to play out in the international market, will accrue to the Indian pharmaceutical companies and to the global human society.
However, it must also be noted with circumspection that this technology also brings with it major ethical concerns and critics have cried foul and are afraid that this technology may prove to be a Frankenstein monster that may lead to creating gene edited babies and such other unethical practices and end up interfering into the very act of ‘God’. It is worth recalling the claim made by the Chinese scientist - He Jiankui, of illegally altering the genetic make up of twin girls which was reported in late 2018. This information shook the world and called the attention of the global community on the ethical concerns that such technology comes with. Fortunately, He Jiankui was found guilty of illegal practices in trying to alter the genetic makeup of twin girls and was jailed for three years. The alertness of the global community in combating such unethical and illegal practices give hope that this technology will not go unchecked nor will it be abused. Scientific community and human society is now aware that the Chinese scientist by engineering mutations into human embryos, which he used to produce babies, was capriciously nosediving into an era in which science could rewrite the gene pool of future generations by altering the human germ line. The Chinese scientist had also flouted established norms for safety and human protections along the way. Although there was no definitive evidence that the Chinese scientist actually succeeded in modifying the girls’ genes — or those of a third child expected to be born later, the experiments had attracted so much attention that the incident has created an alarm for the human society and may very well alter scientific research for years to come. This incident has also divided the society in their opinion on scientific research in the field of genome editing.
But then the ethical concerns of scientific research have not been new to the human society. Ever since the Nobel prize winning discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, by James Watson and Francis Crick, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, which was followed the successful sequencing of the entire Human Genome fifty years later in 2003, there have been debates in favour and against such scientific research and ethical concerns have been voiced by the society. Interestingly, it is in anticipation of such ethical concerns that the Human Genome Project (HGP) has specifically had earmarked a portion of the HGP budget (3%) which was meant to address the ELSI - Ethical, Legal and Social Issues, associated with the sequencing of the human genome. Hopefully there will be requisite funding, legislation and laws which will be framed by countries to ally the fears that the CRISPR technology may create.
While speaking of the benefits and concerns debate, which crops up during such scientific research, particularly in the context of this years Nobel winning works in Chemistry - the CRISPR technology tools, I am reminded of two quotes from history one relatively recent and the other from the eighteenth century, which reveal the two sides of the divide that are natural to such debates, which span centuries. Jonathan Swift in his famed ‘The King of Brobdingnag, “Gulliver’s Travels”, wrote in 1727 ; ‘Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before would ....do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together”. Perhaps his statement can be appreciated in the Indian context where the benefits of scientific research were applied in agricultural practices by scientists like Normal Borlaug and M S Swaminathan, who heralded the green revolution in India and helped us in combating hunger and famine quite effectively. However, there is another side to any scientific research and that relates to the concerns that come with some of the scientific research, which can be seen from the statement of Prince Charles, made in 1998. He said “ I believe that we have now reached a moral and ethical watershed beyond which we venture in to realms that belong to God, and to God alone. Apart from certain medical applications, what actual right do we have to experiment, Frankenstein like, with the very stuff of life?”
As exemplified in the above quotes, throughout history, there have been those who have embraced change, which emanates from scientific research and those who have expressed concern and have preferred to clung to old ways, feeling known risks are better than unknown benefits. So we should not be surprised that history may be replayed as we come to grips with this new technology, which is a result of the wonderful research work of the two Nobel Madams who have been awarded this years Chemistry Nobel Prize.
May Science triumph and may humanity triumph as well.