October 5, 2009

Salk Non-Resident Fellow Honored with Nobel Prize for the Discovery of Telomerase

Salk News

Salk Non-Resident Fellow Honored with Nobel Prize for the Discovery of Telomerase

LA JOLLA, CA—Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California in San Francisco and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies since 2001, will receive this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine/Physiology for “the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase,” the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden announced today.

The Nobel Foundation will present its prestigious prize to Dr. Blackburn in Stockholm during a formal ceremony on December 10. Blackburn shares the award with Carol W. Greider, Ph.D., a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Investigator Jack W. Szostak, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard Medical School.

“The discovery of telomerase and the role telomeres play in human biology by Salk Non-Resident Fellow Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues undoubtedly opened a new door for cancer research while also deepening our understanding of the aging process,” said Salk President William R. Brody. “We applaud their contributions and the impact they are having today toward the development of treatments to improve the human condition.”

Telomerase activity is now known to be the main mechanism by which human tumor cells achieve immortal growth. Cancer cells are “addicted to telomerase,” as Blackburn likes to put it, and reducing the quantity of telomerase will halt the division of cancer cells in their tracks. Not surprisingly, telomerase has become a prime target for novel therapeutic cancer intervention, and several clinical trials for telomerase based cancer therapy are already underway.

“Today’s award celebrates the achievements of three profoundly creative scientists, who solved a very fundamental question about the ends of chromosomes. Their pioneering work, performed in two simple experimental organisms – a ciliated pond organism and baker’s yeast – laid the groundwork for current research on the role of telomeres in cancer and human aging,” said Vicki Lundblad, Ph.D., a Professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory.

Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak provided the solution for a long-standing biological puzzle better known as the “end replication problem”: Each time a cell divides, it has to faithfully duplicate all its chromosomal DNA so that each daughter cell receives a complete set. The problem with this crucial process is that the replication machinery cannot copy linear chromosomes all the way to the tip. This led to the prediction, more than 30 years ago, that without some additional mechanism to continually replenish the very tips of chromosomes, the ends would slowly whittle away, and the cells left to perish.

Even as early as the 1930s and 1940s, scientists had suggested that chromosome ends were capped by special structures, so-called “telomeres” from the Greek for “end” (telos) and “part” (meros) that would protect these fragile ends. But it was not until 1978, when Blackburn – with the help of the tiny pond-dwelling ciliate Tetrahymena – discovered that telomeres consist of a short, simple DNA motif repeated over and over again, that the precise makeup of telomeres was determined.

About Elizabeth H. Blackburn:
A native of Tasmania, Australia, Blackburn studied biochemistry at the University of Melbourne and received her doctorate in Molecular Biology from Cambridge, England. After finishing her postdoctoral studies at Yale University, she moved to the West Coast, joining the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of California in San Francisco in 1993.

Throughout her career, Blackburn has been honored by her peers as the recipient of many prestigious awards. These include the Eli Lilly Research Award for Microbiology and Immunology (1988), the National Academy of Science Award in Molecular Biology (1990), and an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Yale University (1991). She was a Harvey Society Lecturer at the Harvey Society in New York (1990), and the recipient of the UCSF Women’s Faculty Association Award (1995). Most recently, she was awarded the Australia Prize (1998), the Harvey Prize (1999), the Keio Prize (1999), the American Association for Cancer Research-G.H.A. Clowes Memorial Award (2000), the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor (2000), the AACR-Pezcoller Foundation International Award for Cancer Research (2001), the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation Alfred P. Sloan Award (2001), the E.B. Wilson Award of the American Society for Cell Biology (2001), the 26th Annual Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research (2003), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine (2004) and the Lasker Award (2006).

She was named California Scientist of the Year in 1999, elected President of the American Society for Cell Biology in 1998, and served as a Board member of the Genetics Society of America (2000-2002). Blackburn is an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), the Royal Society of London (1992), the American Academy of Microbiology (1993), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2000). She was elected Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences in 1993, and was elected as a Member of the Institute of Medicine in 2000.

About Salk Non-Resident Fellows:
Salk Non-Resident Fellows serve as members of the faculty for renewable six-year terms. Nominated by the president and faculty, these individuals come from academic organizations around the world and have achieved high levels of success in the research areas at the Institute. They visit the Salk yearly to help benchmark the Institute by advising on the scientific progress of its faculty and on the effectiveness of its existing and proposed scientific programs.

About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is one of the world’s preeminent basic research institutions, where internationally renowned faculty probe fundamental life science questions in a unique, collaborative, and creative environment. Focused both on discovery and on mentoring future generations of researchers, Salk scientists make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, aging, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders by studying neuroscience, genetics, cell and plant biology, and related disciplines.

Faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel Prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1960 by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, M.D., the Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark.

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