Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn, two of the three winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine. [Credit: Gerbil via Wikimedia Commons]
A trio of researchers was honored today with the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for uncovering a key genetic mechanism that is opening new doors for cancer and aging research.
Carol Greider, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, got the good news this morning as she was doing laundry. Her co-recipients, Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California at San Francisco, and Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School, may have been even more surprised: They were both awakened by the call.
The team won the $1.4 million prize for solving the mystery of how chromosomes—the carriers of our DNA—evade damage as cells divide. The secret, they found, lies at the ends. Much as the tips of a raw shoestring will fray after repeated lacing and tying, a string of DNA undergoing the stress of countless copies can degrade. Both need the help of reinforcements—plastic coatings and telomere caps, respectively. The team discovered an enzyme that can rebuild these chromosome tips, which naturally shorten as a cell ages. They dubbed this erosion-countering enzyme, telomerase.
“This is a tremendous victory for curiosity-driven science,” Greider told Bloomberg today. “We had a simple question of how chromosomes are maintained. It turns out there are major medical implications.”
Most human cells do not actually carry active telomerase, but malignant cancer cells do. And the so-called “immortality enzyme” allows for their indefinite division. But if a vaccine could somehow turn off cancer cells’ telomerase, the disease’s spread could theoretically be thwarted. (There’s also reason to believe this research will be sped along; Blackburn is president-elect of the world’s largest cancer research society, the American Association for Cancer Research.) At the same time, if this enzyme could be activated in non-cancerous cells, some diseases of aging may be avoided.
Perhaps the greatest impact of this announcement is what it could mean for aspiring young women. Relatively few females have won the prize in the past: Of the 192 individual recipients in the medicine category since 1901, only eight others have been female. Now that number is ten. And this is the first time two women have shared a prize.
“We don’t give Nobel Prizes because of gender,” medicine prize committee member Goran Hansson told the Associated Press. “We give it for scientific discoveries. As more women participate in research and make scientific discoveries, more women will win Nobel Prizes.”