Prof Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig is one of the two recipients of the 2015 Louis-Jeantet-Prize for Medicine. The prize money of 700,000 Swiss francs is mostly attributed for the continuation of the awardees work. Charpentier receives the prize for harnessing an ancient immune defense system in bacteria - CRISPR-Cas9 - into a genome editing tool largely exploited by biologists and promising for curing human diseases.
Bacterial pathogens also possess an immune system that defends them against predators, and particularly viruses. When studying this system, Charpentier while she was a group leader at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS) at Umeå University and her team unravelled a unique mechanism - CRISPR-Cas9 - a pair of molecular scissors composed of a duplex of two RNAs linked to a protein. In collaboration with the team of her colleague Prof Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley, it was demonstrated that the mechanism could be harnessed into a powerful tool for genome engineering. The system is celebrated as a revolution for biology, and used by laboratories all over the world for different purposes.
"The CRISPR-Cas9 system has already breached boundaries and made genetic engineering much more versatile, efficient and easy", says Charpentier, who is the head of the department "Regulation in Infection Biology" at the HZI, Alexander von Humboldt Professor affiliated at the Hannover Medical School and a guest Professor at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine, Umeå University, Sweden. The system can be used in various areas of biology and medicine and curing genetic disorders is only one possible application. The system also shows promises in areas like agriculture and the development of therapeutics for the or when it comes to developing treatment of chronical diseases such as HIV or cancer.
Established in 1986, the Louis-Jeantet-Prize for medicine has already been awarded to 82 researchers. Ten of the awardees subsequently won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, or the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. As one of the best-endowed awards in Europe, the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine fosters scientific excellence. It finances the continuation of innovative research projects of more or less immediate practical significance for the treatment of diseases rather than honouring completed work.
"I feel extremely honoured receiving this prestigious award", says Charpentier. "I see it as a motivation for my team to continue our work and will use the prize money to conduct further research on the mechanisms governing the pathogenicity of Streptococcus pyogenes".