Jennifer Doudna, a Pioneer Who Helped Simplify Genome Editing

Andrew Pollack in The New York Times:

DOUDNAJP1-articleLargeBERKELEY, Calif. — As a child in Hilo, one of the less touristy parts of Hawaii, Jennifer A. Doudna felt out of place. She had blond hair and blue eyes, and she was taller than the other kids, who were mostly of Polynesian and Asian descent. “I think to them I looked like a freak,” she recently recalled. “And I felt like a freak.” Her isolation contributed to a kind of bookishness that propelled her toward science. Her upbringing “toughened her up,” said her husband, Jamie Cate. “She can handle a lot of pressure.” These days, that talent is being put to the test. Three years ago, Dr. Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, helped make one of the most monumental discoveries in biology: a relatively easy way to alter any organism’s DNA, just as a computer user can edit a word in a document. The discovery has turned Dr. Doudna (the first syllable rhymes with loud) into a celebrity of sorts, the recipient of numerous accolades and prizes. The so-called Crispr-Cas9 genome editing technique is already widely used in laboratory studies, and scientists hope it may one day help rewrite flawed genes in people, opening tremendous new possibilities for treating, even curing, diseases. But now Dr. Doudna, 51, is battling on two fronts to control what she helped create.

While everyone welcomes Crispr-Cas9 as a strategy to treat disease, many scientists are worried that it could also be used to alter genes in human embryos, sperm or eggs in ways that can be passed from generation to generation. The prospect raises fears of a dystopian future in which scientists create an elite population of designer babies with enhanced intelligence, beauty or other traits. Scientists in China reported last month that they had already used the technique in an attempt to change genes in human embryos, though on defective embryos and without real success. Dr. Doudna has been organizing the scientific community to prevent this ethical line from being crossed. “The idea that you would affect evolution is a very profound thing,” she said. She is also fighting for control of what could be hugely lucrative intellectual property rights to the genome editing technique. To the surprise of many, the first sweeping patents for the technology were granted not to her, but to Feng Zhang, a scientist at the Broad Institute and M.I.T. The University of California is challenging the decision, and the nasty skirmish has cast a bit of a pall over the field.

Picture: Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Doudna, center, with Dick Costolo, Twitter's chief executive, and the actress Cameron Diaz, in November. Each scientist won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize.

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