Pitt Awards Dickson Prize to Jennifer Doudna, PhD

June 8, 2016

A researcher known for breakthrough discoveries in genetics that have allowed scientists to efficiently and precisely modify DNA sequences and correct genetic defects in any cell will receive the University of Pittsburgh’s 2016 Dickson Prize in Medicine.

Jennifer A. Doudna, PhD, will accept the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s most prestigious honor during Science 2016—Game Changers, a showcase of the region’s latest research in science, engineering, medicine and computation that will be held from Oct. 19 to 21 on Pitt’s campus. Dr. Doudna holds the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a professor of molecular and cell biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

“Dr. Doudna’s discoveries have helped start the gene-editing revolution, and by elucidating the DNA-editing mechanisms of the CRISPR-Cas9 system, have given scientists the tools to add or delete genes in any type of cell,” said Arthur S. Levine, MD, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine. “In the near future, this technology might be used to eliminate mutated genes that cause conditions like sickle cell and a host of other diseases. It also could enable the genetic engineering of crops that resist disease and insect pests that fail to reproduce.”

Dr. Doudna and her colleagues investigated clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)—repeating sequences seen in many bacterial genomes. CRISPRs represent an adaptive immune system capable of inserting new snippets of viral DNA into a bacterial genome, which is then passed on to ensuing generations to protect them from the same virus.

In a June 2012 issue of the journal Science, Dr. Doudna and her colleagues demonstrated that the CRISPR-associated protein Cas9 could be used with prepared sequences of guide RNA to cut DNA at virtually any spot on the genome. Using the system, researchers have successfully corrected genetic defects in animals and altered DNA sequences in embryonic cells. The Doudna Lab, which explores molecular mechanisms of RNA-mediated gene regulation, currently is working toward delivering Cas9 protein-RNA complexes into specific tissues and on uncovering the mechanisms of target search and binding in live cells.

During Science 2016—Game Changers, Dr. Doudna will deliver the Dickson Prize in Medicine lecture. Her talk is titled “CRISPR Systems and the Future of Genome Engineering.”

Dr. Doudna’s honors include the 2016 Heineken Prize, 2016 Canada Gairdner Award, the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Gruber Genetics Prize, the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences, and many others. In 2015, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. She is a fellow of the American Society for Microbiology and a member of the National Academy of Inventors, the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition to Dr. Doudna, three other renowned researchers will deliver plenary lectures at Science 2016. The Mellon Lecture will be given by Howard Y. Chang, MD, PhD, a pioneering dermatologist and geneticist from Stanford University; the Hofmann Lecture will be given by Lasker Prize-winning neurologist and leading Parkinson’s disease researcher Mahlon DeLong, MD, of Emory University; and the Provost Lecture will be given by Jo Handelsman, PhD, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who is widely recognized for her work on microbiology and metagenomics, science education, and women and minorities in science.