Jennifer Doudna, campus professor of molecular and cell biology and chemistry, receives Lurie Prize

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Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology and chemistry, was awarded the Lurie Prize in the Biomedical Sciences for her extensive research on RNA molecules Tuesday.

The prize, endowed by Foundation for the National Institutes of Health board member Ann Lurie and awarded annually, aims to recognize “outstanding achievement by a promising young scientist in biomedical research.” Doudna, who is the award’s second-ever recipient, is specifically being recognized for her extensive yet early career strides in demystifying RNA and its role in gene therapy.

RNA was initially overlooked because it was initially thought of as solely a “recipe” to generate proteins. This changed, however, when it was discovered that certain RNA could also function as enzymes in the 1980s, when Doudna entered her scientific training.

“(The discovery) was a very exciting moment for the field,” Doudna, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, said. “It suggested that RNA could do much more (and) play a more active role in the evolution of life.”

Since then, Doudna has devoted her work to uncovering the “secret life” of RNA and deciphering its structure. In 2012, Doudna discovered a groundbreaking gene-editing technique made possible by a protein called Cas9, which acts like a pair of “molecular scissors” by specifically targeting and snipping away the DNA of invading viruses.

Doudna was aided in her research on Cas9 by Martin Jinek, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at UC Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a professor at Hannover Medical School in Germany.

The protein, in its ability to destroy defective genes more efficiently and cost-effectively than previous technologies, can have huge medical implications and, according to Doudna, can ultimately begin to “change the way that we think about human gene therapy.”

“The hope is that, at some point, this technology could be responsibly and ethically used to impact disease,” said Richard Folker, director of communications for the FNIH.

Michael Botchan, a campus biology professor and colleague of Doudna, explained that this new method using Cas9 will make DNA-altering more accessible in all fields of life science as well.

“We should all be delighted how these accomplishments follow from academic brilliance,” Botchan said. “It’s what we, (UC Berkeley), do best here.”

Doudna will be presented the Lurie Prize medal and a $100,000 monetary prize in Washington, D.C., on May 20. She was selected for the award by a jury of six distinguished biomedical researchers, working under the guidance of the FNIH.

“It’s meaningful to me, in part, that it represents work done over several years by very talented members of the lab,” Doudna said. “The world of RNA is very rich indeed, and there are a lot more interesting functions to be figured.”

Contact Heyun Jeong at [email protected]