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Salk Scientist Vicki Lundblad Shares Her Perspectives on Nobel Prizes, Telomeres, and Risks

Vicki Lundblad

"It is hard to sleep at night, when you have a sense of the magnitude of the discoveries unfolding"

-Vicki Lundblad

When Salk Non-Resident Fellow Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine in early December, Salk Professor Vicki Lundblad will have an insider's view. As Szostak's invited guest at the Stockholm ceremony, she will celebrate with the winners that the field of telomere biology is receiving this grand international recognition.

Lundblad, a professor in Salk's Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, was a postdoctoral fellow in Szostak's lab at Harvard, where she made a fundamental discovery about the role of the enzyme telomerase in cell proliferation. Lundblad recalls it was a tremendously heady time, to be present at the start of a new area of study. As a young scientist, "it's hard to sleep at night, when you have a sense of the magnitude of the discoveries unfolding."

Lundblad was caught up in a pure basic science problem – how the ends of chromosomes are maintained. It was also an era of strong U.S. commitment to such basic research. "For Jack to get the funding he needed and for me to get a postdoctoral fellowship, it was simple, it just wasn't an issue."

When Blackburn (a professor at UC San Francisco), Greider (then a Blackburn grad student) and Szostak pursued their theories about telomerase working with a ciliated pond organism and baker's yeast – "nobody had a clue" that these findings would have serious implications for human cancer and the aging process, Lundblad said. Ironically, she pointed out, "in today's NIH environment, with the focus on immediate medical relevance, it is not clear this research would have been funded." She added: "that's why support by private philanthropy for basic research is so crucial."

Beyond the issue of ongoing support for basic science, Lundblad says this award-winning work had another key element deserving mention: the scientists were going against the scholarly tide in performing their early telomerase experiments. Remembering her first taste of that scientific creativity and its results, she said: "It is a phenomenal place to be, when you know you are heading in the right direction, and everyone else is looking elsewhere." But going against conventional wisdom requires a free-wheeling environment.

"I came to the Salk exactly because of its support for that environment" of intellectual risk-taking, Lundblad said. Of course, taking such risks means dealing with failure, and Lundblad laughs: "I've had some spectacular failures." But such failures are hugely instructive – and "if you aren't failing occasionally, then perhaps you aren't taking enough risks."

Today, both Lundblad and colleague Jan Karlseder, an associate professor also in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory at Salk, continue to aggressively probe the mysteries of telomeres, working with yeast, worms and human cells to unlock the next big question in telomere biology: how are these natural chromosome termini protected against the cell's tendencies to get rid of DNA ends?

And Lundblad reports that, decades after the first pivotal insights that resulted in this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine, excitement about telomere research in Salk laboratories is extremely high. Enmeshed in what one scientific colleague calls "venture science," Lundblad and Karlseder are both caught up in the challenge of the research and "still losing sleep at night."