A US scientist known for her groundbreaking DNA research that could pave the way for cancer prevention and even a cure was among three scholars awarded a prestigious annual prize in Hong Kong.
Maria Jasin, medical sciences professor at Cornell University, was announced as the winner of the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine on Tuesday for having also laid the foundation for the subsequent gene-editing technology.
Such gene-editing techniques include CRISPR – the technology used on the world’s first gene-edited babies announced by Chinese scientist He Jiankui last year at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong.
He shocked the world when he announced he had performed the controversial experiment on twin girls born from embryos by modifying their genes to make them resistant to HIV.
Chinese authorities later condemned He for acting illegally, and issued a draft regulation to restrict the use of gene editing in humans.
The award panel rejected concerns of giving the prize to Jasin in view of the controversy, adding one should not link her discovery to genome editing and the ethical concerns.
Professor Chan Wai-yee, council member of the Shaw Prize, said Jasin’s work had huge implications in finding treatment for patients with hereditary diseases and cancer.
“[It can help to] look at some markers for cancers, and eventually ways of curing and preventing cancer,” he said.
Jasin is known for her studies in homologous recombination, a method in which breaks in DNA strands are repaired without introducing mutations – a failure to repair such breaks in mammalian cells is linked to many diseases, especially cancer.
She also discovered that a DNA cleaving enzyme could be used as a “DNA scissors” to make a precise break in the genome.
Jasin’s discoveries form the basis for subsequent work in genome modification, such as CRISPR and TALENs.
“Because we know that the machinery that causes the repair of those breaks [works] that way, we can actually look for molecules that may be mutated in certain types of cancer,” Chan added.
The Shaw Prize was established in 2002. It consists of three annual prizes: Astronomy; Life Science and Medicine; and Mathematical Sciences. Each prize consists of a medal, a certificate and US$1.2 million.
The prize in Astronomy this year went to Edward Stone, David Morrisroe Professor of Physics and vice provost for special projects at the California Institute of Technology, for his leadership in the Voyager project, consisting of two spacecraft launched by NASA in 1977.
Professor Frank Shu, chairman of the board of adjudicators of the Shaw Prize, said Stone’s contributions transformed human understanding of the four giant planets and the outer solar system.
For example, he pointed out how Stone’s works led to the impetus to study one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, as an abode of life after photos showed that there could be water on the satellite.
The Shaw Prize in Mathematical Sciences went to Michel Talagrand, a researcher at the Sorbonne University in France.