2016 Alpert Prize Goes to Five Scientists for CRISPR Research

Troy Brown, RN

March 09, 2016

The $500,000 2016 Warren Alpert Foundation Prize was awarded today to a group of five scientists for groundbreaking genetic research about how the body defends itself against bacteria and discoveries about how that knowledge can be applied to genome editing for correcting genetic defects and designing more effective drugs "by making gene editing faster, easier and cheaper than the technologies available previously," according to a Harvard Medical School news release.

"The game-changing insights achieved by these five scientists led to a technique that has been swiftly embraced across the globe, altering the way we study and understand eukaryotic genetics and offering enormous potential for developing new gene- and cell-based therapies, including treatment strategies for previously intractable genetic diseases," Jeffrey S. Flier, MD, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, and chair of the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize Scientific Advisory Committee, explained in the news release.

The five recipients who will share the unrestricted award are:

  • Rodolphe Barrangou, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences and the Todd R. Klaenhammer Distinguished Scholar in Probiotics Research at North Carolina State University, Raleigh;

  • Philippe Horvath, PhD, senior scientist at DuPont in Dangél-Saint-Romain, France;

  • Jennifer Doudna, PhD, the Li Ka Shing Chancellor's Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences and professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley;

  • Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, scientific member and director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany, and professor at Umeå University in Sweden; and

  • Virginijus Siksnys, PhD, professor, chief scientist, and department head at the Institute of Biotechnology at Vilnius University in Lithuania.

Technique "Has Hit the Field of Genetics Like a Lightning Bolt"

"These five scientists have made foundational contributions to a technique that has hit the field of genetics like a lightning bolt," Bevin Kaplan, director and vice president of the Warren Alpert Foundation and a member of the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows, explained in the news release. "The nature of this work is unprecedented in its far-reaching potential for future therapeutic advances."

"We are confident that innumerable lives will be positively touched by this work in the years to come," Kaplan added. "In this way, these exemplary men and women most definitely embody the spirit of the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize. As always, we anticipate a phenomenal symposium and award ceremony in the fall."

Dr Barrangou and Dr Horvath demonstrated how bacteria protect themselves from destruction by pathogens, including viruses, by cutting up specific segments of the invading pathogens' DNA, using a system known as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR.

"It has been enjoyable to observe firsthand the evolution of the CRISPR field in the past decade, and seeing the field evolve from humble beginnings of CRISPR analysis in dairy cultures to driving the genome-editing craze has been fantastic. We could not have dreamed that trying to understand how bacteria resist viruses would eventually lead to the CRISPR revolution we have witnessed," Dr Barrangou said in the news release.

"Our seminal work, published in Science in 2007, had a significant impact on the scientific community. It really set the stage, opened new research avenues and inspired numerous scientists to investigate further in the CRISPR field," Dr Horvath noted in the release.

Top, from left: Dr Rodolphe Barrangou and Dr Philippe Horvath. Bottom, from left: Dr Jennifer Doudna, Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr Virginijus Siksnys. Source: Images courtesy of recipients.

"One of the Most Important Technological Advances"

Dr Doudna, Dr Charpentier, and Dr Siksnys expanded on those findings to establish that the CRISPR system could be programmed to home in on any specific genetic sequence in other organisms, including humans, and "alter or replace the targeted DNA at will," according to the Harvard news release.

The Warren Alpert Foundation and Harvard Medical School have partnered to award the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize for innovation in groundbreaking research, scholarship, and service committed to understanding and curing disease since 1987. The foundation has given more than $3 million to 54 honorees, eight of whom have also been awarded a Nobel Prize.

The advisory committee is made up of internationally renowned biomedical scientists who select the prize recipients, and the school hosts a scientific symposium to honor the recipients each fall. This year's scientific symposium will be held at Harvard Medical School on October 6.

"Determining biochemically and molecularly how the CRISPR system operates and then demonstrating its potential as a gene editing tool is one of the most important technological advances that has been made during my career," Cliff Tabin, PhD, head of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Alpert Foundation's scientific advisory prize committee, said in the news release.

"There are a large number of researchers who have contributed to the development of the CRISPR system and in no small measure share credit for it, but in choosing this year's Alpert Prize recipients, we recognized those who established the understanding of the system and its potential, which others were then able to perfect as a usable tool," Dr Tabin added.

"As an alumna of the [Harvard Medical School] graduate program, I am particularly honored to receive this award in recognition of research conducted with my collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier and our outstanding postdoctoral associates and students. We hope that future students are inspired by the value of curiosity-driven research and the passion for fundamental discovery that our work represents," Dr Doudna said in the news release.

"I feel extremely honored by this award. I am excited about the potential of the CRISPR-Cas9 findings by my team to make a real difference in the fields of bioengineering, biotechnology and biomedicine," Dr Charpentier noted in the news release.

"This prize makes my work even more enjoyable and challenging. I am really glad that my research, aimed in the beginning on a very basic question of how bacteria protect themselves against phages, paved the way for the development of novel tools for genome-editing applications," Dr Siksnys observed in the news release.

Previous awardees have been honored for discoveries about a wide number of diseases, including asthma, breast cancer, Helicobacter pylori, hepatitis B, and HIV/AIDS.

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