By Jeffrey Norris
The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded today to UCSF’s Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD – along with Carol Greider, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Jack Szostak, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital – recognizes the importance of the most fundamental kind of basic biological science.
The three scientists were recognized for key discoveries that help explain how our genes remain intact through repeated cell divisions. They study the DNA end caps – called telomeres – within gene-bearing chromosomes inside living cells, and also study the enzyme telomerase, which makes telomeres and keeps them from being whittled away through repeated cell divisions.
Telomeres protect DNA from fraying, like plastic shoelace tips protecting a shoelace. The gradual progress of science has revealed that they also do much more. Growing evidence continues to point to a role for telomere length in aging and major diseases such as cancer.
But, as is the case in the work recognized today, it is not always immediately apparent where basic research will lead in the way of applications to benefit health and humanity. Yet an understanding of basic biological processes is the foundation for understanding healthy functioning as well as disease conditions. It’s hard to fix something if you don’t know how it works.
For Blackburn, the work leading to the Nobel Prize began with her studying a simple organism, Tetrahymena, a single-celled protozoan, as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Joseph G. Gall, PhD, at Yale University. She brought to the lab a thorough understanding of the latest techniques for spelling out sequences of DNA code.
Blackburn started up her own lab at UC Berkeley, where she and Greider, then a graduate student working in the lab, continued to work with simple organisms and first reported the discovery of the enzyme telomerase. Blackburn has continued her telomere studies throughout her tenure at UCSF, which began in 1990, when she became a professor in two departments, Microbiology and Immunology as well as Biochemistry and Biophysics.
Blackburn has expanded her studies to explore the roles of telomeres and telomerase in cancer, aging, and stress and stress-related illnesses.
Colleagues from around the country commented on the importance of the now-burgeoning scientific field of telomere research, first nurtured to viability – with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – by Blackburn and a handful of other researchers two decades ago.
Reaction from Scientific Leaders
Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, PhD, has known Blackburn and recognized the importance of her research for many years.
“Today’s announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Liz Blackburn, Carol Greider and John Szostak recognizes their path-breaking work to uncover the mechanism by which chromosomes maintain their ends,” Tilghman said. “I have taught their seminal papers for years to illustrate to students the importance of asking a fundamental question, choosing the right organism to study the question at hand – ‘pond scum,’ as Liz sometimes refers to Tetrahymena – and then inventing, if need be, new biochemical approaches.
“Their work was beautiful on all three fronts,” Tilghman added, “and would have deserved this prize even if the discovery of telomerase had not had such profound implications for understanding stem cells, cancer and aging. This is science at its very best.”
Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), who is chief executive officer of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), commented on the work of Blackburn, who is president-elect of that organization.
“Dr. Blackburn is a scientific pioneer who, along with AACR member Dr. Greider and Dr. Szostak, is revolutionizing the way we look at biology and translational science,” Foti said. “Not only did the discovery of telomeres and telomerase propel cancer science forward on a grand scale, it is also changing the way we explore how to treat other types of disease and how to potentially prolong cell life.”
Jeremy M. Berg, PhD, is director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the NIH and a leading supporter of Blackburn’s research. He said: “Dr. Blackburn’s research, driven by curiosity, answered fundamental questions about a basic biological process now known to be involved in cancer and cellular aging. Her work has had a profound impact on many fields, and offers a classic example of how basic research can illuminate our understanding of health and disease in unforeseen ways.”
Harold E. Varmus, MD, along with former UCSF Chancellor J. Michael Bishop, MD, won the Nobel Prize in 1989 for research at UCSF. He became NIH director during the Clinton Administration, and is now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. At UCSF, the Blackburn lab was next door to the Varmus lab, and for a time Blackburn was Varmus’ department chair in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
“She’s a totally wonderful person and a great scientist, and a great person to be doing science with,” Varmus said. “She is enthusiastic about the work of others as well as her own work, and she is an inspiration to everybody, male and female.
“It’s beyond dispute that her work on telomeres has revolutionized the way we look at chromosomes,” Varmus added. “Those of us who are basic scientists, but who also are interested in disease and the amelioration of disease, find when we look at her work the importance of identifying significant and fabulously interesting problems in biology and working them out, regardless of whether the organism in question is of practical importance.”
Elissa Epel, PhD, in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry has collaborated on research with Blackburn for several years. “She is at the same time a visionary, but practical thinker,” Epel said. “This is paired with her generous mentoring and her devotion to discovery and to women in science. She has mentored a generation of researchers in the field of telomerase and telomere biology, which has grown exponentially.”
“She’s brilliant,” said research collaborator Owen Wolkowitz, MD, of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry. “She knows telomeres and telomerase inside and out. She’s meticulous in her science; she has an extremely high degree of integrity with her data. Working with her, and with Elissa Epel as well, has opened my eyes to an entirely new level of analysis – the ways in which subcellular functioning can affect the brain and behavior.”
Peter Walter, PhD, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics and an investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is a longtime UCSF colleague of Blackburn who headed the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics until recently. “She has been a great role model,” Walter said. “She has shown that women can have both a family and a great scientific career.”