The CRISPR Nobel Prize Is a Win for Feminine Scientists: Will It Be a Win for Girls’s Well being?
Genes are like a recipe for a soufflé: if an instruction is missing, it can cause a big problem. But there’s a lot more at stake with genes than just feeling ashamed in front of your mother-in-law. A single mistake in the double helix of the four-letter DNA alphabet of the human genome can cause debilitating disease.
Earlier this year, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a revolutionary gene editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 (CRISPR). Almost as revolutionary, this was the first Nobel Prize in Science shared by two women.
CRISPR-Cas9, which works like a spell checker and elegantly repairs DNA so that the genetic code can be read the way it should again, works even better than previous generations of CRISPR. Over the past decade, this technology has enabled researchers to modify genes to fight cancer and treat a range of other diseases, from HIV to blood disorders.
Lack of women in biomedical research
Since 1901, 930 people and 25 organizations have been awarded the Nobel Prize and the Prize in Economics, but only 57 of them were women. In total, only 22 Nobel Prizes in Science went to women. This is a major problem because recognizing more women, engaging them in current scientific discussions, and funding their research could have a significant impact on women’s health.
We have known for decades that the increasing gender diversity in the biomedical sciences is leading to increased awareness of women’s health issues. For example, researchers spent more time on health conditions that affect women, such as breast cancer and autoimmune diseases, only after more women entered academic research in the 1980s and 1990s.
The number of women receiving doctorates in the United States has doubled since 1997. Nevertheless, there are still clear differences. For example, a 2019 study found that women without peers were less likely to graduate within the typical six years than men in the same program.
While there is agreement that women are critical contributors to scientific research, the biomedical research workforce lacks gender diversity and does not currently reflect the population of the United States.
How to move the needle on gender diversity
If we not only include women as researchers, but also center them as study participants, I believe we will see even more benefits for women’s health.
A 2019 study reviewing gender data from tens of thousands of published articles and clinical trial records found that 49% of clinical trial participants were women. Despite this consistent presentation, the study also showed that sexual prejudices persist against female participants in clinical trials. Although many women have featured in articles and records on digestive and musculoskeletal disorders, they have been underrepresented in studies for certain disease categories such as HIV / AIDS, chronic kidney disease, mental disorders, neurological disorders, and respiratory disorders.
CRISPR-Cas9 gives us an exciting opportunity to keep moving the needle in the right direction. Earlier this year, CRISPR technology was used to develop a test that would detect the virus that causes COVID-19 in minutes. And there are so many potential therapeutic uses, including treating conditions like blindness and HIV, and using it as a promising gene therapy targeted approach for triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive, often incurable disease that accounts for 12% of all breast cancers. Imagine the wide range of diseases and conditions we can focus on, including some diseases that still fall victim to sexual prejudice if we continue to include and support women in the sciences.
Striving for true inclusion
Before Charpentier and Doudna received this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016, they were both awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO international prize for women in science. Awarded annually to women researchers addressing some of the world’s greatest challenges, this award helps position women as leaders in their respective fields of science. Such accomplishments serve as a stepping stone to success and provide women with the resources to continue their work.
The importance of the CRISPR tool developed by Charpentier and Doudna shows the extent to which women can contribute to science. Celebrity recognition for their achievement, such as winning a Nobel Prize, helps draw attention to the fact that we need to break down barriers that prevent women from becoming leaders in their respective fields of science.
The diversification of the biomedical field has proven to be an integral part of an equitable science, and more women than ever before are being recognized for their work. The gene editing tool developed by Charpentier and Doudna has the ability to rewrite life as we know it.
It’s exciting to think about how her work – and the work of other female researchers waiting in the wings for recognition – can make a positive contribution to women’s health.