Three American Researchers Awarded Nobel Prize in Medicine

From left: Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Jack W. Szostak and Carol W. Greider. Photo: Gerbil and Harvard Medical School.

Three American medical researchers won the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine for their research into how cells operate. Their work has affected cancer treatment and understanding of the aging process.

The winners are Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, Carol Greider of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

“The award of the Nobel Prize recognizes the discovery of a fundamental mechanism in the cell, a discovery that has stimulated the development of new therapeutic strategies,” the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm said in an announcement October 5.

The committee said in its citation that the researchers determined how chromosomes are protected from erosion by a unique DNA sequence and the enzyme, telomerase, that helps provide the protection. “The long, threadlike DNA molecules that carry our genes are packed into chromosomes, the telomeres being the caps on their ends,” the citation said.

Chromosomes carry the human body’s genetic information, and telomeres act as buffers, Blackburn said in an interview two years ago with Time magazine. “They are like the tips of shoelaces. If you lose the tips, the ends start fraying,” she said.

Australian-born Blackburn and British-born Szostak, who became U.S. citizens, discovered that a unique DNA sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from eroding away, while Blackburn and Greider identified telomerase as the enzyme that makes telomere DNA.

Cancer cells have the ability to divide infinitely and also to preserve their telomeres while escaping erosion. It is thought that cancer might be treated by eradicating telomerase, and several studies are under way in this area, including studies evaluating vaccines directed against the cells with elevated telomerase activity, the Nobel Assembly said.

“When we started the work, of course, we were really just interested in the very basic question about DNA replication, how the ends of chromosomes are maintained,” Szostak told the Associated Press. “At the time, we had no idea there would be all these later implications.”

The discoveries have had a major impact in the scientific community, the Nobel Assembly said. The telomere shortening is a factor in the reason for aging — not only in individual cells but in the organism as a whole. The telomere is but one of the factors in the aging process, and research remains intense in this area.

“The discoveries by Blackburn, Greider and Szostak have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies,” the Nobel Assembly said in its announcement.

“I think we understand a lot about telomerase,” Greider said in an interview with “There are still large unanswered questions. Some of the detailed biochemistry isn’t yet entirely worked out.”

In 2006 the three scientists were awarded the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for their telomerase research. Their work spans a period from the 1970s well into the 1980s.

“The machinery is really just a marvelous thing,” Blackburn said in an interview with shortly after the Nobel award was announced. “It has become very interesting to look at what happens to telomeres in humans, because they really do seem to reflect our status of health and our risk of disease in quite a striking way.”

The three scientists will share equally in a $1.4 million prize and receive diplomas from the Nobel Assembly, and are invited to attend the prize ceremonies in Stockholm on December 10.

The Nobel Prize was established in 1895, and the first awards were made six years later in 1901. The prize was established by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. The prize in physics will be announced October 6, in chemistry October 7, in literature October 8, the Nobel Peace Prize on October 9, and the economic sciences prize October 12.



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