Emmanuelle Charpentier is Director of the Department of Regulation in Infection Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany. She will be giving the Mendel Lecture on Tuesday June 19 at 13.30 hrs. She talked to Mary Rice about her life and work.
Although she was very interested in the natural and human sciences while at school, Emmanuelle Charpentier didn’t consciously think at that time that she might become a microbiologist one day – or so she believed. Yet, when she mentioned her plans to join the Institut Pasteur for her Masters, her mother told her that, aged 12, she had come home from school and said that she would work at the Pasteur one day. “I have no recollection of having said that; but my biology teacher must have talked about something that made me think of the possibility of becoming a microbiologist in the future,” she says.
The support of her parents has always been important to her, and particularly so when she left France to pursue her career as a postdoc in the United States. “Being far away from your home in a completely different work culture is not always easy, but I could always talk to them and they helped me expand my mindset. That was a valuable experience and I believe that it also made me a better scientist.”
After five years in the States, she returned to Europe and worked in Austria, Sweden and Germany, where she has been at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin since 2015. The discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology thrust her into the spotlight. “It is truly an experience that has shaped my life as a scientist in a way that I could never have imagined, and I feel very honoured that it has had such an impact on the scientific community. Although there were already many tools for gene surgery, CRISPR-Cas9 has proved to be more precise, easier to use, more efficient and more versatile.”
Whereas most technologies take some time to be adopted widely, “thousands of labs around the world are already working hard to further develop the technology,” says Charpentier. “I am thrilled about the prospect that one day, the CRISPR discovery may be used to treat serious genetic diseases in humans. CRISPR Therapeutics, the company I co-founded with Rodger Novak and Shaun Foy, has recently filed its first application for clinical trials for a CRISPR-based gene therapy against genetic blood disorders, such as ß-thalassemia and sickle cell disease.”
Charpentier still has plenty of challenges to face, both in her work and more widely. “Advocating for basic science, and for microbiology in particular, is not easy. Understanding the basic workings of nature is definitely something that drives me as a scientist in my research, and I’m sure that goes for many colleagues too. But unfortunately, we all have to fight for funding for basic science. The discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology shows clearly that pure basic science can lead to a major breakthrough with practical applications. There are no old or obsolete topics ; one can make interesting findings in many research fields.”
If Charpentier hadn’t be a scientist, she might have been a ballet dancer or a performer in the arts. “I imagined doing this when I was a child.” She would also have enjoyed being an athlete, and still tries to find time for sports. “It’s a way for me to achieve equilibrium after long hours at work. I try to spend time on the track or swimming whenever I can, but with my busy schedule, I no longer have the time for the cultural and artistic life that I used to enjoy.”
Retirement is still a long way off, and “once a scientist, always a scientist,” she says. But she does sometimes think about projects outside the lab. “The impact of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology has meant that I have had the privilege of meeting many people who have initiated innovative and exciting projects that have the aim of supporting scientists in their work, engaging society, and increasing the visibility of research among the public. I find that very inspiring.”
In her talk, Emmanuelle Charpentier intends to share the history surrounding the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology with her geneticist colleagues. “As a microbiologist, I have always been interested in the fundamental mechanisms of infection and immunity in bacteria, and this is how I identified the CRISPR-Cas9 mechanism. Its versatility and simplicity has an immense potential for the treatment of serious genetic disease, but it also comes with challenges and responsibilities for scientists, particularly when it comes to editing the human germline, the subject of huge debate throughout Europe and more widely. I am already looking forward to the discussions!”
Picture: Hallbauer & Fioretti, Braunschweig, DE.