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UC Berkeley’s Doudna named to receive Vanderbilt Prize

Mar. 18, 2020, 2:02 PM

 

by Bill Snyder

Jennifer Doudna, PhD, who led development of the revolutionary genome editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, is the recipient of the 2020 Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science, officials at Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced this week.

Jennifer Doudna, PhD

Doudna is the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences and is professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.

She also is the executive director of the Innovative Genomics Institute, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes, and a member of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She is the 15th recipient of the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science.

Established in 2006 by the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM), the prize recognizes women scientists with a stellar record of research accomplishments who also have made significant contributions to mentoring other women in science.

“Dr. Doudna’s invention of groundbreaking genomic technology has fundamentally changed the landscape for how we are able to approach the treatment of many devastating diseases and a host of other challenges facing mankind. Her work continues to create great promise for the future,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of VUSM. “I’m delighted to congratulate her as the 2020 Vanderbilt Prize recipient.”

Prize winners receive an honorarium, present a special seminar and mentor a Vanderbilt Prize Scholar, a woman pursuing graduate studies in the biomedical sciences in the School of Medicine. Doudna’s award presentation has been postponed and will be rescheduled in the coming months.

“We are thrilled that Dr. Doudna is being recognized for her revolutionary work in genome editing, which has catalyzed innovative research poised to impact human health over the coming years,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, VUMC Executive Vice President for Research and the Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology. “She is a world-renowned scientist, an exceptional mentor and a role model for us all.”

“I am honored to accept the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science,” Doudna said. “Throughout my career I have worked for and alongside many incredibly talented scientists, both men and women.

“I am grateful to now be in a position to support and mentor young people as they advance their careers in science,” she added. “This award gives us all a platform to continue the public debate about responsibly using CRISPR technology to improve human health and our world.”

Born in Washington, DC, Doudna grew up in Hilo, Hawaii. She attended Pomona College in Claremont, California, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in 1985.

Four years later she earned a PhD in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School where she worked with Jack Szostak, PhD, who would later win a Nobel Prize for his discoveries in genetics.

Doudna subsequently held research fellowships at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. In the early 1990s, she was a Lucille P. Markey Scholar in Biomedical Science at the University of Colorado, where she worked with another Nobel laureate, Thomas Cech, PhD.

In 1994 Doudna joined the faculty at Yale University, where she was later promoted to Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. She was a visiting professor at Harvard University before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley in 2002.

In 2012 Doudna and colleagues including Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, then at Umeå University in Sweden, published fundamental science about CRISPR, a natural defense mechanism used by bacteria to protect their genomes from invading viruses and plasmids.

The researchers described how it could be harnessed as a technology for rapid and programmable editing of genomic DNA.

Doudna, Charpentier and their lab members showed how a CRISPR-associated enzyme called Cas9, when guided by small RNA sequences, can be used for site-specific genome engineering in animals and plants. The implications for correcting genetic abnormalities and treating human disease were huge.

In November, less than eight years after their publication, preliminary findings released from clinical trials involving two patients suggest that CRISPR-Cas9 can “correct” two devastating genetic blood disorders, sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia. Other clinical trials are underway in patients with cancer and an inherited form of blindness.

Doudna, whose lab has continued to study and develop CRISPR-based genome editing, has received many honors for her research including the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences, the Paul Janssen Award, the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor and the 2020 Wolf Prize in Medicine.

She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Inventors and a foreign member of the Royal Society.

At UC Berkeley Doudna has been a mentor to numerous graduate and undergraduate students and post-doctoral fellows, many of whom are women, and she is a faculty member of the Berkeley Biophysics Graduate group and the Berkeley Bioengineering Graduate group, two interdepartmental graduate programs.

For a complete list of Vanderbilt Prize winners, go to the VUMC Office of Research website at www.vumc.org/oor and click on the pull-down menu on the “Research” tab.

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