In this news, we discuss the 'Doudna is a great mentor': Malayali scientist in Nobel winner's team shares experiences.
When Gayathri Vijayakumar, from Kottayam District, Kerala, left for the United States in 2009, she had little idea she would work with a Nobel Laureate 11 years later.
Gayathri is a virologist at Scribe Therapeutics, the start-up co-founded by Nobel Prize winner Jennifer A. Doudna to develop the CRISPR gene editing technique. Jennifer A. Doudna, professor at the University of Berkeley, shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier this year for their exemplary work in genome editing. Charpentier and Doudna developed a method known as CRISPR / Cas9 which can be used to modify the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with great precision.
In this exclusive interview, Gayathri Vijayakumar deepens the CRISPR technique and shares her experiences of working with the Nobel Laureate.
In an interview featured on UC Berkeley’s YouTube channel, Jennifer A. Doudna explains how the Nobel is a motivation for women scientists. What do you think of this as a woman scientist?
It is a historic moment for women and for science. Two women winning the Nobel Prize is by no means an easy task. It’s a great time for CRISPR therapeutics. The first article on CRISPR therapeutics was published in 2012. The Nobel Prize therefore arrived in record time. I am inspired by Doudan’s work and happy with the recognition.
What inspires you the most about Doudna?
Jennifer Doudna is co-founder of Scribe Therapeutics. She is a very down to earth person. She takes a personal interest in the work of others and takes the time to mentor us. The fact that she is interested in people of science and not just science is a great advantage.
What is CRISPR? What is Doudna’s contribution on the ground?
CRISPR stands for “clusters of short, evenly spaced palindromic repeats”. It is a technique that can be used to edit, modify or change any gene. CRISPR is the bacterial immune system. It can target viruses by examining sequences of the viral genome. We can use this immune system and put it in a human to target specific genes. This technique is simple, inexpensive and specific. CRISPR helps us achieve a high level of specificity. Doudna and Charpentier were the first to discover this immune system in bacteria and to think about its use in human therapy.
What are the successful applications of the method and the potential it holds?
CRISPR can be used to target any genetic disease with a mutation. A year ago, it was used to treat a patient with sickle cell anemia. In February 2020, the T cells of three cancer patients were edited using CRISPR. There are also a large number of inherited diseases that can be cured using this technique.
There is an ethical debate around CRISPR. What are the checks and balances within the scientific community to ensure that technology is not misused?
An ethical guideline for CRISPR is an absolute need of the hour. Chinese scientist He Jiankui has produced genetically modified babies using CRISPR. This could follow a slippery path of eugenics where you can improve the traits of human beings. We currently have many ethical guidelines in place and you must submit your proposed experiments to a committee. It is ideal to pursue CRISPR editing in somatic cells only as therapy and not in germ cells. CRISPR / cas9 is a method developed as part of an international collaboration that began ten years ago. The Nobel is also recognition for the collaboration that Charpentier and Doudna have developed over the years.
Do you think that scientists should embark on more initiatives of this type to progress?
Science transcends borders. This is particularly relevant during a pandemic. Researchers around the world are now collaborating and sharing resources and information. The Charpentier-Doudna partnership shows that science transcends nationalities. CRISPR, as a technology, innovates everywhere. We are therefore very attached to collaborations.
What research project at Scribe Therapeutics are you part of?
I am trained as a virologist. I obtained my masters in biotechnology and my doctorate in virology from Mount Sinai University. We can integrate CRISPR technology into cells through viruses. Engineering different viral platforms can help us specifically target brain or lung cells and differentiate two different cells. I help develop this technique.
You are from Kottayam district in Kerala. How did you develop an interest in gene editing? Please tell us about your academic background.
My mother is a doctor and aunts are scientists. So I have always had an interest in science. I was personally inspired by Kiran Mazumdar Shaw from Biocon. But I changed course when a professor motivated me to undertake research. I did research for a while at Cornell and then did a PhD in Virology because I liked it so much. I went from biotechnology to cancer biology via CRISPR. Being in love with science and following where science takes you has helped me.
How different is the research culture in the United States?
There are clear differences in the scientific culture of the two countries. India has fewer resources than the United States. In the US, kids learn to think outside the box, and in India, it’s more of rote learning.
Education in the United States is healthier. At the undergraduate level, we are exposed to all subjects regardless of the major taken. A majority of the American scientific community is from India and China. So we have smart people. It is only the approach and the resources that make the difference.
What advice would you give to aspiring Indian researchers?
Scientists should try to collaborate as much as possible and publish their work in journals. They must effectively use social media platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn to promote their work and foster scientific growth.
This story was first published on Onmanorama
‘Doudna is a great mentor’: Malayali scientist from Nobel Prize team shares experiences
“It is a historic moment for women and for science”