Australian-American researcher Elizabeth Blackburn, and Carol Greider and Jack Szostak of the United States won the Nobel Medicine Prize for identifying a key molecular switch in
The trio were honoured for the discovery of how chromosomes are
protected by telomeres, and the role of an enzyme called telomerase
in maintaining or stripping away this vital shield.
"The award of the Nobel Prize recognises the discovery of a
fundamental mechanism in the cell, a discovery that has stimulated
the development of new therapeutic strategies," the Nobel jury
The three told Swedish Radio they were overjoyed by the news. Greider said she was "just thrilled, I just think that the
recognition for curiosity-driven basic science is very, very nice,"
adding that she was up doing laundry in the US when the early
morning call came from Sweden.
Blackburn said she knew when they made their discovery that they were on to something big.
"I felt very excited ... and I thought this is very interesting,
this is a very important result, and you don't often feel that
about a result," she said. Szostak said meanwhile he expected "to have a big party at some point" to celebrate the prestigious award.
What the trio discovered
Telomeres are a minute yet vital factor in ageing. They are like a nubby, protective cap, fitting on the ends of the strands of DNA -- the chemical recipe for life -- that are packed into
Blackburn and Szostak discovered in 1982 that a unique DNA
sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from degradation
when the cells divide. With Greider, Blackburn also identified
telomerase, the enzyme that makes the telomere DNA.
If telomeres become worn, cells age.
But if telomerase levels are high, the telomere length is
maintained, and cellular ageing is braked. A small number of rare
but very destructive diseases, including a form of severe anaemia,
are linked to defective telomerase, resulting in damaged cells.
Yet there is also a darker and more complex side to this
What their research means
Many experts initially speculated that ageing could be pinned to
telomere shortening, but the process has emerged as something that
encompasses different factors, as well as telomeres.
In addition, high telomerase also helps cancer, enabling its
cells to replicate endlessly and achieve what scientists call
Finding ways of blocking this machinery through "telomerase
inhibitors" is one of the most eagerly explored areas of cancer
The trio's work has "added a new dimension to our understanding
of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the
development of potential new therapies," the Nobel citation said.
The three won the 2006 Lasker Prize, one of the most prestigious
US science awards, for the same work.
History of the prize
Blackburn has been a professor of biology and physiology at the
University of California in San Francisco since 1990, while Greider
is a professor in the department of molecular biology and genetics
at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Szostak is professor of genetics and Massachusetts General
Hopsital in Boston and affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical
Last year, the Nobel Medicine Prize went to France's Francoise
Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, who shared one half of the
award, for discovering the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that
Harald zur Hausen of Germany won the other half for research
that went against the then-current dogma to claim that a virus, the
human papillomavirus (HPV), causes cervical cancer, the second most
common cancer among women.
The Medicine Prize is the first award to be announced in this
year's Nobel season.
The Nobel prizes, founded by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, were first awarded in 1901. Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, died childless in 1896, dedicating his vast fortune to create "prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."
Laureates receive a gold medal, a diploma and 10 million Swedish kronor (1.42 million dollars, 980,000 euros) which can be split between up to three winners per prize. The prizes are awarded in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10. – (Sapa, October 2009)
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