News conference this morning: UCSF scientist wins Nobel Prize

By Jennifer O'Brien

For further information, including a news release and downloadable photographs:

Scientist Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD, 60, of the University of California, San Francisco was named today (Oct. 5, 2009) 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 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.

Telomerase is pronounced (tel-AH-mer-AZE). Telomere is pronounced (TEEL-oh-mere).


Monday, October 5, 2009
Genentech Hall, UCSF Mission Bay Campus
600 16th St., San Francisco (near 3rd and 16th Streets)

10:00 a.m. - Campus celebration:Lobby of Genentech Hall
1:00 a.m. - News conference: Auditorium in Genentech Hall
Noon - Laboratory tours, Genentech Hall

Directions to UCSF Mission Bay Campus:
From downtown
: From 2nd St., turn right onto King St. (at AT&T Park). Turn left onto 3rd St., crossing the channel. Continue on 3rd St. all the way to 16th St. Turn right on 16th St. and soon after, turn right into the campus (at 4th St.).

Alternative route: Take 16th St. east, toward San Francisco bay. Drive through the Mission District; go under the I-280 overpass. Several buildings of the campus are on the left, just past the railroad tracks. The entrance to the campus is just beyond the buildings, on the left (at 4th St.).

Parking: Public parking is available in a lot on the campus. Entrance is on 4th St, via 16th St. A public garage also is located at the corner of Owens and 6th streets, at 1625 Owens St., next door to the William J. Rutter Center.


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 research sparked a whole field of inquiry into the possibility that telomerase could be activated to treat such age-related diseases as blindness, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases, and deactivated to treat cancer, in which the enzyme generally is overactive.

In recent years, Blackburn and colleagues have explored the possibility that life stress, the perception of life stress and lifestyle behaviors could take a toll on telomerase and telomeres. They have reported several studies with human participants, suggesting a correlation. The 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

Blackburn’s road to discovery traces back to 1975 to 1977, when she was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. There, working with Joseph Gall, she discovered the unusual nature of telomeres, with their simple, repeated DNA sequences comprising chromosome ends. The work was published in 1978.

With Szostak, she established that these DNA repeats stabilize chromosomes inside cells. They also 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 such an enzyme, which they named 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 joined the UCSF faculty in 1990 and is the Morris Herzstein Endowed Chair in Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

She is the fourth UCSF scientist to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
A native of Australia, Blackburn has lived in the United States since 1975, and is a naturalized citizen of the United States as of September 2003.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband, John Sedat, PhD, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF. They have one son, Benjamin.

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.