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UCSF Scientist Receives Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 5 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- 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. Their 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.

Evolution of discovery

In 1975 to 1977, Blackburn, working as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University with Joseph Gall, discovered the unusual nature of telomeres.

With Szostak, Blackburn established that the DNA repeats stabilize chromosomes inside cells and predicted the existence of an enzyme that would add the sequences to the ends of chromosomes.

In 1985, while a professor at University of California, Berkeley, Blackburn and her then graduate student Greider reported the discovery of telomerase. Their research showed that in some organisms, such as the single-celled pond dweller Tetrahymena, telomerase continuously replenishes the chromosome's telomeric tips. In humans, however, researchers, including Blackburn and her group, showed that telomerase is damped down at certain times in the lives of many types of cells, limiting their ability to self-replenish.

With this discovery, scientists saw the possibility of exploring whether, in humans, the enzyme could be reactivated to prolong cell life to treat age-related diseases, and deactivated to interrupt cancers.

Blackburn is the fourth UCSF scientist to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.

Read more about Blackburn's research at


Images of Elizabeth Blackburn and of telomeres can be downloaded:

Image #1 - Elizabeth Blackburn - head shot

Image #2 - Elizabeth Blackburn -- in the lab

Image #3 - Elizabeth Blackburn - with student at lab bench

Image #4 - Damaged telomeres in yeast cell that was unable to divide.

Image #5 - Damaged telomeres in pond microorganism cell trying, unsuccessfully, to divide.


SOURCE University of California, San Francisco

SOURCE University of California, San Francisco
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