Three scientists will share the US$1 million 2018 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience 'for the invention of CRISPR/Cas9, a precise nanotool for editing DNA, causing a revolution in biology, agriculture, and medicine'.
Professors Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute in Germany are well-known names associated with the discovery of CRISPR, but Professor Virginijus Šikšnys of Vilnius University in Lithuania has had a much lower public profile.
Professor Šikšnys discovered the properties and potential of CRISPR and Cas9 independently from Professors Doudna and Charpentier around the same time, but his paper was rejected by Cell and was not peer-reviewed. While he was seeking another publisher, Professors Doudna and Charpentier's paper was published in Science. His inclusion recognises his work and that he could easily have been the first to publish.
'These scientists were the first to understand this system could be engineered as a genome-editing tool with ease and flexibility and precision that could not have been achieved previously,' said Jacob Sherkow, of Stanford Law School who has closely followed CRISPR.
The award notably does not include Dr Feng Zhang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology among the laureates. Dr Zhang's work, building on the published findings of Professors Doudna and Charpentier, showed that Cas9 can be used to edit the genome of eukaryotic cells.
This has generated interest because the intellectual property around CRISPR and its application for genome editing has been hotly disputed, both in the court and also in public discussion about who will ultimately be awarded the Nobel prize for its discovery.
Dr Zhang's work forms the basis of MIT and the Broad Institute's claim to patent the use of CRISPR genome editing in eukaryotic cells (including human, animal and plant cells). The patent is disputed by UC Berkeley based on the work of Professors Doudna and Charpentier's group. US courts have so far sided with the Broad, but appeals are ongoing (see BioNews 948). Patents in China and Europe have been awarded to Berkeley (see BioNews 907 and 895).
The three Kavli Prizes – Astrophysics, Nanoscience and Neuroscience – are awarded biennially.