The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded this morning to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., Carol W. Greider, Ph.D., and Jack W. Szostak, Ph.D., for their work in identifying how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and their discovery of the enzyme telomerase. These three researchers join a prestigious group of scientists whose breakthrough discoveries have laid a foundation for significant medical advances.
Drs. Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak solved a major problem in biology: how chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation. They determined that the solution is to be found in telomeres, which reside at the ends of the chromosomes, and in telomerase. Drs. Blackburn and Szostak made the discovery that a unique DNA sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from degradation, and Dr. Greider and Blackburn identified telomerase.
This triumvirate have been long-standing U.S. favorites to win the Nobel. Their seminal research was honored with a Lasker Award in 2006 for the prediction and discovery of telomerase. Many winners of the Lasker Award, known as “America's Nobel”, subsequently win Nobel Prizes.
Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., is the Morris Herztein professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Currently, Dr. Blackburn is studying the synthesis and function of telomeres in a variety of organisms and in cancers with the goal of understanding the mechanism of action of telomerase and its role in cells. Her lab is specifically interested in determining how the functions of telomerase are divided between the RNA and protein moieties of the enzyme. For example, she notes that “specific RNA mutations destroy telomerase, while others cause aberrant telomerase active site functions.” Dr. Blackburn received her Ph.D. in 1975 from the University of Cambridge, England, and was a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University. She was on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, and since 1990 has been professor of biology and physiology at UCSF. Dr. Blackburn is also a member of the founding board of the Rosalind Franklin Society.
Carol Greider, Ph.D., is the Daniel Nathans professor and director of the department of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Current research is focused on “studying a mouse model that faithfully mimics many of these human diseases of telomere shortening,” Dr. Greider said. “We are also interested in the fundamental mechanisms that establish and regulate telomere length equilibrium. Therapeutics that might increase telomerase activity would be potentially helpful in these devastating diseases. This chemistry could be the basis for completely new early cancer diagnostics.” Dr. Greider studied at the University of California in Santa Barbara and in Berkeley, where she obtained her Ph.D. in 1987 with Blackburn as her supervisor. After postdoctoral research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, she was appointed professor at Johns Hopkins.
Rounding out the group is Jack W. Szostak, Ph.D. He is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor at the department of genetics, Harvard Medical School, and Alex. A. Rich distinguished investigator at the department of molecular biology, Massachusetts General Hospital. His ultimate goal is to elucidate evolution's earliest steps. This year's Nobel prize has been awarded for discoveries made at the start of his career. Today Dr. Szostak's main focus is the construction of a simple, artificial cell that can grow and divide as well as evolve in a Darwinian sense to adapt to its changing environment. He received his doctorate degree in biochemistry from Cornell University. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the New York Academy of Sciences.
Drs. Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak are now part of an esteemed group of Nobel Laureates. Former winners include such luminaries as Francis Crick and James Watson (1962), Barbara McClintock (1983), Stanley Cohen (1986), Harold Varmus (1989), and Philip Sharp (1993).
Dr. Sharp told GEN recently that winning the prize made for “a stunning day.” He called the Nobel “an award that is respected globally. It recognizes you as among the best in the research world.” Dr. Sharp added that once you win a Nobel, “you are much more likely to get a phone call when someone needs advice or wants you to give an important lecture.” Winning the prize “does complicate your life to some degree, but it also attracts people to you.”
Along with the requests and invitations, come higher expectations from reviewers and other scientists. What doesn’t change for most Nobel Laureates is the number of grants that must be written. For this year’s recipients, the experience will be a little different. In addition to the 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) prize and increased prestige, Drs. Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak can likely look forward to greater longevity. According to two University of Warwick researchers, receipt of the Nobel Prize adds an average of two years to a Laureates’ life.