March 24, 2008
La Jolla, CA – The fifth annual Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, an international award to recognize outstanding women scientists, has been awarded to Salk professor Vicki Lundblad, Ph.D., for her groundbreaking work in telomere biology.
She will share the prize with Salk nonresident fellow Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California in San Francisco, and Carol W. Greider, Ph.D., a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The telomere trio will receive the award at a ceremony held at Rockefeller University next spring.
The prize was established by Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard, a professor at Rockefeller University and his wife, sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. Named in memory of Greengard’s mother Pearl Meister, who died giving birth to her son, the prize was founded to raise the visibility of women scientists whose achievements in biomedical research merit international recognition. In addition, Greengard stipulated that the Pearl Meister Greengard shall be presented by a woman who has distinguished herself in law, politics, the arts or sciences.
Women scientists have made big inroads since Pearl Meister’s professional ambitions, a smart and curious woman by many accounts, were curtailed by scarce opportunities for advanced education or intellectual endeavors. But even by today’s standards, the field of telomere biology claims an unusually large share of high-profile female investigators who laid the foundations for a burgeoning field.
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 discovered that telomeres consist of a short, simple DNA motif repeated over and over again, that the precise makeup of telomeres was determined.
A decade later, Lundblad revealed that a defect in telomere replication fast-forwarded the cellular aging process in yeast cells till they could no longer divide and entered a zombie-like state called replicate senescence.
Each time a cell divides its telomeres lose a short stretch of DNA. Without telomerase, the enzyme that rebuilds chromosomes’ ends after each round of replication, telomeres progressively shorten until the cell dies. But cells can recover, as Lundblad also discovered, by activating an alternative lengthening mechanism to replenish chromosome ends in the absence of telomerase.
Although scientists were well acquainted with telomerase’s activity, the genes coding for key parts of the enzyme remained elusive. Lundblad not only discovered the first protein subunit of telomerase, Est1, but also elucidated a novel regulatory mechanism for telomerase: she showed that Est1 mediates recruitment of telomerase to telomeres, by bridging the interaction between the catalytic core of the enzyme and a telomere-bound protein called Cdc13. Lundblad’s work, in collaboration with Dr. Thomas Cech, also led to the long-awaited discovery of the catalytic subunit of telomerase.
Lundblad’s decisive discoveries in yeast have laid the groundwork for numerous studies on telomere maintenance in mammalian cells: the link between telomerase and mammalian senescence, the identification of human telomerase protein components, and the “Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres” or ALT pathway for human telomere maintenance, which plays an important role in cancer cells, were all preceded by Lundblad’s groundbreaking studies in yeast.
Lundblad, a native of California, earned a biochemistry degree from the University of California at Berkeley before she pursued graduate studies at Harvard. After postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School, she returned to the West Coast, joining Liz Blackburn’s lab at UC Berkeley. In 1991, Lundblad took her first faculty job at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and in 2006 joined the Salk faculty.
Internationally renowned for its groundbreaking basic research in the biological sciences, the Salk Institute was founded in 1960 by Dr. Jonas Salk, five years after he developed the first safe and effective vaccine against polio. The Institute’s 59 faculty members are scientific leaders in the fields of molecular biology, neurosciences and plant biology.