The Winners of the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine

Prize Winner 2015

Emmanuelle Charpentier

Winner of the 2015 Louis-Jeantet Prize for medicine

Born 1968 in Juvisy-sur-Orge (France), Emmanuelle Charpentier studied biochemistry and microbiology at the Pierre & Marie Curie University of Paris, and obtained her PhD at the Institut Pasteur. She then continued her work in the United States at the Rockefeller University, the New York University Medical Center, and then the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. After returning to Europe, she set up a research group in microbiology at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories of the University of Vienna (Austria). Subsequently she was appointed Associate professor and then Guest Professor at Umeå University (Sweden). Since 2013, she is Head of the Department of Regulation in Infection Biology at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany, and Professor at the Medical School of Hannover.

Emmanuelle Charpentier was elected member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in 2014, and was selected as one of the American Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers for 2014. She has already received numerous awards for her research, including in 2014 the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, the Dr Paul Janssen Award, the Grand-Prix Jean-Pierre Lecocq (French Academy of Sciences), the Göran Gustafsson Prize (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) and in 2015 the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

“Scissors” for cleaving genes

Pathogenic bacteria possess an immune system that defends them against predators, and particularly against attacks by viruses (bacteriophages). When examining how this defence system works for Streptococcus pyogenes, Emmanuelle Charpentier’s team noted that it uses a duplex of two small RNA molecules that contain sections of the virus genome (or CRISPR) and thus carry the memory of a previous attack. The microbiologists furthermore discovered that the CRISPR acted as the guide for a protein (Cas9), which kills the virus by cleaving its genome at particular points. So these two entities grouped together, the CRISPR-Cas9 complex, permit the streptococcus to resist virus attacks.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and co-workers then profited from this existing defence mechanism of bacteria, using it to make CRISPR-Cas9 into a real tool for cleaving the DNA of bacterial and also human cells at precise points. These “genetic scissors” can be used for targeting any gene in a cell in order to modify it. It is henceforth possible to modify gene expression, to switch it “on” or “off”, to change, repair or remove genes. This new tool is now used in molecular biology laboratories around the world. It could also revolutionize medicine by paving the way to finding new forms of treatment for currently incurable diseases.