Inside Salk - October 2009 - page 14

Inside SalkOctober 2009
Salk Scientist Vicki Lundblad Shares Her Perspectives on Nobel Prizes,
Telomeres, and Risks
When SalkNon-Resident Fellow Elizabeth Blackburn,
Carol Greider and Jack Szostak receive theNobel Prize inMedicine
in early December, Salk Professor
Vicki Lundblad
will have an insider’s
view. As Szostak’s invited guest at the Stockholm ceremony, she will cel-
ebrate with the winners that the field of telomere biology is receiving this
grand international recognition.
Lundblad, a professor in Salk’sMolecular and Cell Biology Laboratory,
was a postdoctoral fellow in Szostak’s lab at Harvard, where shemade 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 themagnitude of the discover-
ies unfolding.”
Lundbladwas caught up in a pure basic science problem – how the
ends of chromosomes aremaintained. It was also an era of strongU.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.”
WhenBlackburn (a professor at UCSan Francisco), Greider (then a
Blackburn grad student) and Szostak pursued their theories about telomer-
ase 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 immediatemedical
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 deservingmention: 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 environ-
ment” of intellectual risk-taking, Lundblad said. Of course, taking such
risksmeans 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
Today, both Lundblad and colleague
, an associate
professor also in theMolecular and Cell Biology Laboratory at Salk,
continue to aggressively probe themysteries 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 inMedicine, 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.”
It’s hard to sleep at night, when you
have a sense of themagnitude of the
discoveries unfolding.
–Vicki Lundblad
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