University of Pittsburgh

All plenary sessions will be presented in Alumni Hall’s 7th floor lecture hall.

Dickson Prize in
Medicine Lecture

CRISPR Systems and the Future of Genome Engineering
11:00 a.m., Thursday, 20 October
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Jennifer Doudna, PhD
Li Ka Shing Chancellorís Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences
Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and of Chemistry University of California, Berkeley
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Jennifer Doudna, PhD, is best known for her discoveries involving CRISPR-Cas9-mediated bacterial immunity that have enabled genome engineering in animals and plants through alterations to DNA sequences. She and microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, found that bacteria, when infected by a virus, can use an RNA copy of the viral DNA and a protein called Cas9 to “remember” that specific viral DNA by incorporating segments of it into the bacterial genome, granting future generations of bacteria the ability to destroy similar viruses.

Doudna and her colleagues demonstrated that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used with prepared sequences of guide RNA to cut DNA at virtually any spot on the genome. Additional DNA could be deleted or added, permitting unprecedentedly simple, efficient genome editing. Using the technique, researchers have corrected genetic defects in animals and altered DNA sequences in embryonic stem cells. Such technology has opened a gateway to genetic modification of humans—ushering in significant ethical considerations. Beyond counteracting congenital diseases, CRISPR-Cas9 could potentially modify nondisease traits like intelligence or physical appearance, raising concern not just for researchers, but humanity. Doudna has advocated for a moratorium on attempts to alter the human germline for clinical purposes, though she believes basic research should continue. Precision engineering of organisms and cells might also broaden the capabilities of biofuels and agricultural products, among other revolutionary applications.

Doudna earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at Pomona College in California and her PhD in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard University, where she completed fellowships in molecular biology and genetics, followed by postdoctoral research at the University of Colorado. She is the recipient of the 2016 Canada Gairdner Award, the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Gruber Prize in Genetics, and the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences. She is 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. 

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