‘Science denial is another pandemic,’ says Nobel Prize winner


“The situation is critical. One cannot sit and wait for these threats [como mudanças climáticas e novas doenças infecciosas] just arrive. It is necessary to educate, to understand the science behind these challenges”, says the French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, who works at the Max Planck Institute, in Germany.

She is one of the most important scientists today. Together with the American Jannifer Doudna, the microbiologist developed the DNA editing technique known as Crispr-Cas9. The feat earned the duo the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the 2020 edition.

It was with Crispr, a kind of highly precise molecular scissors, that RNA vaccines could be created, such as those by the Pfizer and Moderna companies (which do not alter the DNA, it is worth noting), used to combat Covid-19, as well as new therapies for genetic diseases, which are still being tested (then making corrections to the genetic material).

The denial of science and scientific facts is another pandemic. Even so, we are on a lucky streak, as we managed to develop vaccines in less than a year that, in normal cases, would take up to ten years to be released”, says the scientist in an interview with sheet.

Charpentier participates in the Nobel Prize Dialogue for Latin America and the Caribbean, an event promoted by the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Nobel Prize Outreach and the Inter-American Network of Academies of Science. In the chat, 80 students, 16 of them from Brazil, converse with the laureates. The broadcast to the public will be made by the Nobel channel on YouTube this Tuesday (16), starting at 1pm.

Other laureates will also participate: the Australian Elizabeth Blackburn and the Norwegian May-Britt Moser, winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2009 and 2014, respectively, the American Saul Perlmutter, Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011, and the Dutch Bernard Feringa, Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016.

For the organizers, the event should stimulate the formation of a new generation of scientists and inspire them by the good example of these success stories.

Crispr is already being used to test patients for the diagnosis of Covid-19, and there are new methodologies being published that take advantage of the potential of different types of Crispr. With regard to medicines, I don’t see anything published in this regard, without considering the production of vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. To develop a drug to fight the virus, there would have to be all the engineering directed towards it. It is not yet clear how to resolve the issue of getting this drug to the body’s cells. Therefore, a treatment based on the technique has not yet been developed.

How can we prevent the technique from being misused, as happened with the Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who manipulated, without authorization, the genome of embryos?

As you may know, Crispr has been used as a possible cure for genetic blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia. It is a combination of gene therapy, gene editing and cell therapy. The proof of concept is literally out there.

Since the publication of our results nearly a decade ago, questions about how to apply the technique ethically have been posed. There are a lot of things that people don’t want to happen, like babies customized to someone’s taste. This happened in China and was the target of heavy criticism. It is not as easy as it may seem to use the technique properly. Therefore, it is important to think about scenarios and carry out these discussions within governmental, academic and medical-scientific national and international entities.

In general, these guidelines, from various entities, point in the same direction: banning use to build genetically customized babies and allowing use for any therapeutic interventions that can cure diseases.

Is there any biological limit to the use of Crispr? Is it possible to alter large portions of our genome?

Crispr allows you to perform single nucleotide edits [“letra química” que forma o DNA], but it can also, in fact, rearrange the genome by deleting large stretches of DNA.

In some countries like Brazil, and even France, his homeland, there is a big problem with the use of doctors who graduate every year. Many become unemployed. Do we already have enough scientists in the world?

Everyone agrees that, for a country to develop, it is necessary to have a strong investment in education and scientific development. And that’s certainly not yet at a sufficiency level. There is an urgent need to deal with this situation and understand that, for economic development to take place, this is an issue that has to be resolved. It’s the future we’re talking about.

The younger generations will very soon be faced with immense challenges such as climate change and the spread of infectious diseases. We all know how Brazil reacted to this situation [da Covid-19] at the beginning of the pandemic.

The situation is critical. You cannot sit back and wait for these threats to just arrive. It is necessary to educate, understand the science behind these challenges. Brazil is full of young and talented scientists and students who want to participate in facing these challenges, anticipate what is to come, be part of a generation that makes a difference.

And politicians have to wake up and understand that they have a huge responsibility to new generations.

We are in the midst of a crisis of denial and budget cuts for scientific activities in Brazil.

The denial of science and scientific facts is another pandemic. Even so, we are on a lucky streak, as we were able to develop vaccines in less than a year that, in normal cases, would take up to ten years to be released.

Again, everything converges on education. From 6 to 16 years of age, children and teenagers should hear explanations about what science is all about, what research is, what certain scientific facts are and how science has allowed us to live so much better.

Is the case of anti-Covid vaccines an example of successful science communication?

There is still a long way to go before I can say this, but many press vehicles were able to explain why the vaccine arrived so quickly and how it was beneficial to the whole world. Now there is the issue of accountability for those who are not getting vaccinated, for example. Here there are several explanations. And it’s challenging, because a lot of people don’t understand the fundamental research that’s behind all of this, the development of a drug, and so on.

You will have the chance to talk with scientists and students from Brazil and Latin America and motivate them. What is the main message you want them to take home?

I’m from a group of Nobel Prize winners who are relatively young. And I am a woman with an international career, outside my country. I take very seriously this connection that I can have with these students, that I can be a kind of role model for them.

There is a challenge in scientific and engineering careers: it is not always possible to strike a good balance between work and personal life. There, personal investment and involvement is very strong. This leads to the fact that we really have to ask ourselves how to make this system evolve.

I think the survey could be a little more team oriented. The pressure now falls on individuals. Young people are always judged on their excellence and productivity. Maybe that had to be revised. Just as the way in which scientists work together had to be revised.

If we continue as we are, I am among those who think that in the future it will be difficult to recruit scientists, university professors and also to train the next scientists.

You have to be very resilient to transform an entire scientist-training mindset.

I experienced it myself: at some point, you had to be proactive and make sure the message was being heard. It is necessary to find who will listen to you. If people don’t feel responsible for that situation, nothing will change. It is necessary to put pressure on public policies.

Emmanuelle Charpentier, 52

She is a microbiologist and researcher at the Max Planck Institute, in Germany. It was she, along with American Jennifer Doudna, who established a genome-editing method known as Crispr-Cas9, derived from a mechanism originally used by bacteria to protect themselves against virus invasion. The technique earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.


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