Nobel Women

nobel prize for medicine 2009
AP Photo/Michael Probst, File
U.S. biologists Elizabeth H. Blackburn from San Francisco, left, and Carol Greider from Baltimore
pose next to a bust of Paul Ehrlich before they were awarded the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig
Darmstaedter science prize in Frankfurt, Germany,
in March 2009.

Nobel Medicine Laureates Discover the Key to Cellular Aging

October 05, 2009 05:00 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Gain a better understanding of the Nobel prize-winning discovery that will aid in the development of new cancer therapies.

A Groundbreaking Cellular Discovery

Three American scientists have been honored with the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, announced this morning in Stockholm, Sweden. Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak were awarded the coveted distinction for their discovery of a “key switch in cellular ageing,” Pia Ohlin reports for Agence France-Presse. According to the Nobel jury, quoted by AFP, the three scientists are being honored for the “discovery of a fundamental mechanism in the cell … that has stimulated the development of new therapeutic strategies.”

As the Nobel Foundation notes, Blackburn, Greider and Szostak were able to identify “how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase,” a discovery directly related to cancer and aging research.

Michelle Fay Cortex explains in Bloomberg that telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes and telomerase is an enzyme that prevents the ends, or telomeres, from being damaged when cells replicate. According to the Associated Press, if “telomeres are shortened, cells age.” But if the enzyme telomerase is highly actively, the telomeres aren’t damaged and remain healthy.

Yet the “more complex side to this picture,” Ohlin writes for AFP, is that a high level of telomerase “also helps cancer, enabling its cells to replicate endlessly and achieve what scientists call ‘cellular immortality.’” Bloomberg notes that several genetic diseases have been linked to problems in telomerase activity, including aplastic anemia and some genetic lung and skin diseases. But “[t]he most intense research has been in cancer, where malignant cells have the ability to divide indefinitely, and in aging, which occurs in the cells when telomeres are shortened,” Cortez writes for Bloomberg.

“This is a tremendous victory for curiosity-driven science,” Greider told Bloomberg. “We had a simple question of how chromosomes are maintained. It turns out there are major medical implications.”

According to AFP, the prestigious award includes a monetary prize of $1.4 million to be shared between the three scientists, gold medals, commemorative diplomas and invitations to the prize ceremonies that will be held in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

Female Scientists Take the Prize

AFP reports that Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider are “are only the ninth and tenth women to win the Nobel Medicine Prize since 1901”—out of a total of 195 people awarded the honor—and they are the first two women to share the prize. Bloomberg also notes that, overall, there have been only 35 women to previously win the Nobel Prize, starting with Marie Curie, who shared the Nobel in Physics in 1903 with her husband, and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.

Nobel Committee secretary Goeran Hansson was quick to explain that gender played absolutely no part in the Nobel jury’s decision. “They're not being honoured because they are women. They are being honoured because they've made a fundamentally important discovery," AFP quotes him as saying.

Related Topic: Trio wins 2008 Physics Nobel

The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics was also shared between three researchers. Yoichiro Nambu, Toshihide Maskawa and Makoto Kobayashi were honored for their theories relating to broken symmetry and the existence of another family of quarks, or subatomic particles.

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