Biologist wins Shaw Prize for breakthrough DNA findings

Local | Cindy Wan 22 May 2019

An American scientist whose breakthrough in DNA technology helps cure genetic diseases will be awarded the Shaw Prize this year.

Developmental biologist Maria Jasin, 63, is the winner of the life science and medicine category of Shaw Prize.

A professor at Cornell University, Jasin has discovered a way to break the spiral structure of DNA and fix problematic genes to cure genetic diseases in mammalian cells. She was the first scientist to discover the importance of the processes in which a cell recombines the breakage of the two DNA strands.

As DNA is structured like a spiral staircase with two double helix strands twisting and binding to one another, any breakage of the double strands will lead to genetic diseases and cancers. The breakage can occur naturally or be triggered by external factors, such as excessive exposure to radiation.

In 1994, Jasin came up with an innovative approach to break the two paired strands and sew them together artificially using DNA scissors - known as cleaving enzymes. This enabled scientists to precisely break the strands at specific points, where they can replace damaged genes with good ones.

Her discovery has greatly fostered the development of gene editing, which helps find ways to cure inherited diseases and cancers.

At the award announcement ceremony yesterday, Chinese University of Hong Kong's biomedical sciences professor Chan Wai-yee said, "Jasin's discoveries fostered the development of the latest genetic treatment for cancer."

The new cancer treatment, known as CAR T-cell therapy, allows scientists to change the genes of a lymphatic T-cell and order it to attack cancer cells in human bodies.

"Cart T-cell therapy will have its last stage of clinical trial completed in the next three to four years," Chan said.

Professor of physics Edward Stone from the California Institute of Technology won the Shaw Prize in astronomy for his excellent leadership in the mega space exploration project the Voyage project, which brought distinctive discoveries about four giant planets within the solar system.

Michel Talagrand, professor of mathematics from Sorbonne University in France, received the Shaw Award in Mathematical Sciences for his studies on concentration inequalities and other discoveries related to probabilities.

Established in Hong Kong in November 2002, The Shaw Prize is an international award to honor scientists who have made outstanding contributions in astronomy, medicine, and life sciences and mathematics. Each prize carries a monetary award of US$1.2 million (HK$9.36 million.)

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