Nobel laureate discusses science and ethics of genome engineering in lecture | Imperial News | Imperial College London

Dr Jennifer Doudna, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work on the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system, gave Imperial’s Schrödinger lecture.

In the special lecture, which you can view in full in the video above, Dr Doudna from the University of California, Berkeley, told a large online crowd about the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system, how its currently used, and what the future could hold if the technology is used appropriately.

These possibilities include making more resilient, higher-yielding crops and providing new routes for treating diseases, from cancer to Huntington’s.

Dr Doudna’s development of CRISPR-Cas9 as a genome-engineering technology, with collaborator Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, earned the two the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.

In addition to her scientific achievements, she is a leader in public discussion of the ethical implications of genome editing for human biology and societies. She also advocates for thoughtful approaches to the development of policies around the safe use of CRISPR technology.

Revolutionary technology

Dr Doudna described how CRISPR-Cas9 – a technology that allows scientists to edit DNA – was discovered in natural bacterial systems and harnessed to be able to precisely reprogramme the genomes of higher organisms, including humans.

Screenshot of Professor Doudna presenting
Dr Doudna during the lecture

She went to on show how this is already being used in basic research, to investigate everything from butterfly wings to how bipedalism evolved in mammals; in medicine, to tackle genetic diseases like sickle-cell anaemia; and in agriculture, to create more resilient crops.

The next steps for the technology, Dr Doudna explained, include finding related systems that may be able to edit even more precisely, and innovating ways to deliver the editing technology directly into the right cells in the human body, such as in muscle cells to tackle muscular dystrophy.

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However, she also acknowledged the ethical considerations in the expanded use of the technology, such as the possibility of introducing genetic edits that could be inherited by future generations, and how to ensure any benefits are provided equitably. She thinks that scientists should be open and transparent about what the technology is and what it can do, as well as what it can’t.

Schrödinger scholars

As well as an annual lecture, the Faculty of Natural Sciences awards Schrödinger Scholarships to the most outstanding students who have made an application for admission to study for a full-time PhD in the Departments of Chemistry, Life Sciences, Mathematics and Physics.

This year, instead of a physical exhibition, the scholars displayed their projects and research on the Schrödinger scholars virtual exhibition website.


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