Molecular biologist Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD, 60, of the University of California, San Francisco, today was named to receive the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Blackburn shares the award with Carol W. Greider of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Jack W. Szostak of Harvard Medical School.
The scientists discovered an enzyme that plays a key role in normal cell function, as well as in cell aging and most cancers. The enzyme is called telomerase and it produces tiny units of DNA that seal off the ends of chromosomes, which contain the body's genes. These DNA units named telomeres -- protect the integrity of the genes and maintain chromosomal stability and accurate cell division. They also determine the number of times a cell divides -- and thus determine the lifespan of cells.
Telomerase is pronounced (tel-AH-mer-AZE). Telomere is pronounced (TEEL-oh-mere).
The scientists' research sparked a whole field of inquiry into the possibility that telomerase could be reactivated to treat such age-related diseases as blindness, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases, and deactivated to treat cancer, in which it generally is overactive.
In recent years, Blackburn and colleagues have investigated the possibility that life stress, the perception of life stress and lifestyle behaviors could take a toll on telomerase and telomeres. They have reported several studies with human participants that suggest a correlation. The findings may offer insight, at the cellular level, into the impact of stress on early onset of age-related diseases.
The scientists were named to receive the prize "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the telomerase enzyme," according to the Nobel committee in Stockholm, Sweden.
"Dr. Blackburn's research over the course of more than three decades has revolutionized scientists' understanding of the way in which cells f
|Contact: Jennifer O'Brien|
University of California - San Francisco