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Nobel Laureate Doudna Addresses CRISPR, Coronavirus and Curiosity

By Nadine A. Yehya on November 9, 2020 in Human & Animal Health

Distinguished Speaker Series - Jennifer Doudna, Ph D

Two-and-a-half weeks after winning a Nobel Prize, Jennifer Doudna addressed an Oct. 30 UC Davis webinar — with an audience of more than 1,600 — about her work on the powerful genome-editing technology CRISPR and its potential to improve diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19.

Doudna, a UC Berkeley professor, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, won the Nobel for chemistry Oct. 7 for their co-development of the CRISPR-Cas9 tool that allows scientists to change or remove genes quickly and with great precision.

The UC Davis Office of Research and School of Medicine, which have been collaborating on COVID-19 research town halls, co-sponsored Doudna’s talk in the Distinguished Speaker Series in Research and Innovation.

“We were thrilled to have such a pioneer in research and champion of innovation speak at our event,” said Prasant Mohapatra, vice chancellor of research. “Dr. Doudna’s work will continue to shape future advancements in human health and agriculture.”

Curiosity and collaborations

Woman speaking, in screenshot from webinar
Nobel Laureate Doudna addresses UC Davis webinar Oct. 30.

Doudna gave a taste of her journey developing CRISPR, a method inspired by the bacterial immune system.

“It is exciting to do discovery research and to answer our curiosity about the world we live in,” Doudna said. “Curiosity-driven research is critical for discovery and innovation.”

Stressing the value of collaborations and partnerships in turning discoveries into applications, Doudna spoke passionately about Lab Without Walls, an academic consortium of researchers from five labs at UC Berkeley and UCSF. They are developing point-of-care, onsite tests for coronavirus.

Allison Brashear, dean of the School of Medicine, said schools like hers are in a unique position to improve health. “They integrate education, research and clinical care to deliver lifesaving treatments directly to patients,” she said. “Dr. Doudna and her research team exemplify the tremendous benefit that team science contributes to improving the health of everyone.”

CRISPR in medicine and agriculture

CRISPR is a powerful technology for editing plant, animal and human cells with many exciting research and industrial applications.

One of its successful medical applications is in sickle cell disease. The technology has moved from proof of principle and lab testing to human clinical trials. The first patient treated for sickle cell disease using CRISPR provided hope of a cure for this disease.

Doudna was cautiously optimistic about CRISPR’s revolutionizing diagnostics. “CRISPR is naturally multiplexed and can detect multiple viruses at a time,” Doudna said. “The main challenge remains in the delivery mechanism.”

She also shared her excitement about the potential applications of genome editing in agriculture. She talked about her collaboration with UC Davis researchers to explore CRISPR use in making rice more resilient to climate change.

During a question-and-answer session moderated by Professorss Ralph Green and Angela Haczku, Doudna said people seem to accept medical uses of CRISPR more readily than its agricultural applications.

“People might be more desperate for medical treatments and innovations. They are probably more trusting in medicine and its review process but show concern in agricultural applications of genome editing. It is like people have an emotional reaction about their food being altered. They seem not to trust it.”

Call for transparency

Doudna addressed the issues of transparency, accessibility and affordability of the technology. She is pushing to establish transparency guidelines for researchers and industries. She would like them to share their work and make it more publicly accessible.

She also discussed the controversy of genome editing in human embryos.

“DNA repair in embryos is very challenging,” she said. “It requires lots more research to know how to do it safely and ethically.”

Doudna is a leader in public discussion of the ethical implications of genome editing for human biology. She advocates for thoughtful approaches to the development of policies around the use of CRISPR-Cas9.

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About the author(s)

Nadine A. Yehya Nadine A. Yehya is a senior communications specialist in Public Affairs and Marketing, UC Davis Health. Reach her at 916-734-9036 or nyehya@ucdavis.edu.

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