Surprising no one, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of a method for genome editing,” that is, the CRISPR/Cas9 system.

CRISPR has transformed many aspects of biological research in the eight years since the 2012 publication of Charpentier’s and Doudna’s paper describing the programmable use of tracrRNA, which Charpentier and her team had described in 2011, to target specific DNA sequences for editing.

The work was more or less instantly recognized as worthy of a Nobel Prize.

During the press conference making the announcement, Charpentier, who joined by phone, acknowledged that beginning “soon after” the papers were published, “it was indeed mentioned to me a number of times” that the discovery was worthy of a Nobel Prize, though “it was not clear who would be awarded.”

Emmanuelle Charpentier, Nobel Laureate

Certainly, Charpentier and Doudna were clear contenders for the award. But so was someone who might be considered the missing third awardee: Feng Zhang, whose laboratory was the first to use the technology to edit mammalian cells.

Surprise at his being passed over was evident as soon as the first reporter asked a question at the press conference announcing the prize. That question was whether the committee had considered awarding anyone else.

Jennifer Doudna, Nobel Laureate

Nobel Committee Chair Claes Gustafsson replied that “this is a question we never answer… We are just extremely happy for this year’s laureates.”

Synthetic biologist George Church, Zhang’s former postdoctoral mentor and another scientist whose team was instrumental in adapting CRISPR for use in mammalian cells, was gracious about the Nobel Committee’s decision. In an interview with Science magazine, Church is quoted as saying that Doudna and Charpentier are the ones who discovered CRISPR, while likening himself and Zhang to inventors.

Science quoted Church as saying the committee made a “great choice,” and that Zhang, who is not yet 40, is “so full of creative ideas that I have no doubt that he will get one or two in the future.”

Not to mention that Zhang may win the financial prize as far as CRISPR is concerned. The Broad Institute, where he is a Core Institute Member, is in a patent battle with UC Berkeley, where Doudna is Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Professor of Biomedical Science. That legal fight is ongoing, but in September, the most recent ruling by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board was largely a victory for the Broad.

More achievements than prizes

Zhang’s failure to be honored alongside Doudna and Charpentier is notable, and noticeable, because the prize can be awarded to up to three scientists, but the committee chose not to.

But there is a more general tendency for scientific prizes to be awarded to a select few of what is usually a larger group of researchers who arguably deserve the prize as well.

David Pendlebury, senior citation analyst at the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, pointed out that Nobel-caliber research, “more often than not, involves multiple individuals and near simultaneous discoveries…. Nonetheless, the Nobel Prize must abide by Nobel's will and limit recognition to not more than three scientists. One way to look at this, it seems to me, is that a Nobel Prize for CRISPR could not fail to recognize Charpentier and Doudna.”

Zhang, however, was not the only possible third recipient.

“Clearly, the Nobel Prize committee had the opportunity to honor one other person – but then which other person?” Marlene Belfort told BioWorld.

Belfort is distinguished professor at the University of Albany, and serves on two international prize committees, the 2015 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research and the Gruber Prize in Genetics.

The 2015 Albany Prize honored five researchers for CRISPR work – including Doudna, Charpentier and Zhang, but not Virginijus Šikšnys, of Vilnius University, who did pioneering work in CRISPR/Cas9 basic science and who shared the 2018 Kavli Prize for Nanoscience with Charpentier and Doudna.

The Albany Prize, unlike most other prizes, does not have a limit on the number of scientists that can be honored.

But given that the Nobel Prize does have a cap, one reasonable solution was to honor Doudna and Charpentier, Belfort said.

Zhang, she added, “is an absolutely brilliant guy… but he was not involved in the fundamental findings.”

And although his overall body of work is more highly cited than that of Charpentier or Doudna, their key 2012 paper has been cited more than 6,000 times since then.

Pendlebury said that only 700 papers out of 50 million published since 1970 have achieved that feat.

The number of deserving recipients vs. awardees had already been a topic on Monday, when Medicine Nobelist Michael Houghton was asked about his decision to refuse the Gairdner Prize, the most prestigious Canadian research prize, because the committee would not honor two of his colleagues along with him.

He has also been on the other side of the velvet rope – the 2018 Lasker Awards were awarded for hepatitis C discoveries to a trio of researchers that did not include Houghton, but did include his fellow Nobelist Charles Rice.

Houghton acknowledged on Monday that his dustup with Gairdner had been “an unfortunate situation” and “an embarrassment.”

But, he defended himself, “I was trying to influence how awards were given… I tried to persuade them to be more inclusive.”

“Great science often is a group of people,” he said. “It’s not just three people, it’s usually five, six… maybe seven or eight…. And I think going forward, we need to acknowledge that and incorporate that into our policies.”

Houghton said that he has no plans to refuse the Nobel Prize – it would be “presumptuous,” and in addition, the Nobel Committee’s regulations and processes “are based on Alfred Nobel’s will, and I don’t think it is feasible to discuss that sort of thing with them.”

That does not mean that other prize committees have to do the same thing, Houghton said. “I think as we go forward, award committees that are not steeped in the same tradition as the Nobel could really think about being more inclusive and expansive.”