UCSF's Elizabeth Blackburn receives Lasker Award

By Jennifer O'Brien

Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD, 57, Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), has been named to receive the 2006 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.

Blackburn shares the award with Carol W. Greider, 45, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Jack W. Szostak, 53, of Harvard Medical School.

The scientists were honored for their prediction and discovery of the telomerase enzyme, which synthesizes telomeres, the tiny units of DNA that seal off the ends of chromosomes, protecting them and maintaining the integrity of the genes contained within them. Both telomeres and telomerase play a key role in cell aging and human cancer.

The research has laid the foundation for a whole field of inquiry into the possibility that the telomerase enzyme could be manipulated to treat cancer and such age-related diseases as cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases.

In 1978, Blackburn discovered the unusual nature of telomeres (TEEL-oh-meers), and in 1985 she and her then-graduate student Greider discovered telomerase (tel-AH-mer-AZE). Blackburn determined that, in some organisms, such as the single-celled pond dweller Tetrahymena, the telomerase continuously replenishes the telomeric tips of chromosomes. In humans, however, it is damped down at certain times in the life of many types of cells, limiting their ability to self-replenish throughout life.

With this discovery, scientists saw the possibility of exploring whether, in humans, the enzyme could be reactivated to prolong cell life—in order to treat age-related and neurodegenerative disorders ranging from skin wrinkles to blindness to cardiovascular disease—and deactivated to treat cancers, in which, the enzyme is usually abnormally overactive.

Broadening the scope of the research, in recent years, Blackburn and UCSF colleague Elissa Epel, PhD, have reported that chronic psychological stress, and the perception of life stress, take a toll on telomeres and telomerase. The findings have implications for understanding how, at the cellular level, stress may promote earlier onset of age-related diseases.

For more information: Blackburn wins the Lasker Award