Monday, October 5, 2009

Curiosity & Nobel

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009
5 October 2009
The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has today decided to award The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2009 jointly to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak for the discovery of "how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase"

Associated Press, European Pressphoto Agency, Associated Press
From left, Jack Szostak, Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn.

"This year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to three scientists who have solved a major problem in biology: how the chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation. The Nobel Laureates have shown that the solution is to be found in the ends of the chromosomes – the telomeres – and in an enzyme that forms them – telomerase.

Telomeres/NIH File Material

"The long, thread-like DNA molecules that carry our genes are packed into chromosomes, the telomeres being the caps on their ends. Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak discovered that a unique DNA sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from degradation. Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn identified telomerase, the enzyme that makes telomere DNA. These discoveries explained how the ends of the chromosomes are protected by the telomeres and that they are built by telomerase.

"If the telomeres are shortened, cells age. Conversely, if telomerase activity is high, telomere length is maintained, and cellular senescence is delayed. This is the case in cancer cells, which can be considered to have eternal life. Certain inherited diseases, in contrast, are characterized by a defective telomerase, resulting in damaged cells. The award of the Nobel Prize recognizes the discovery of a fundamental mechanism in the cell, a discovery that has stimulated the development of new therapeutic strategies." Nobel Press Release

Carol Greider told Associated Press that the research was aimed at understanding how cells work, not with the idea for certain implications for medicine.

“Funding for that kind of curiosity-driven science is really important,” she said, adding that disease-oriented research isn’t the only way to reach the answer, but “both together are synergistic.”

It was comforting that Nobel chose to reward this kind of research as any breakthrough in Medicine and indeed Science could only come from fundamental research. It would not be a discovery if you knew what you were looking for.

The New York Times noted that:“Though Americans have once again made a clean sweep of the Nobel medicine prize, two of the three winners are immigrants. Dr. Blackburn was born in Tasmania, Australia, and has dual citizenship; Dr. Szostak was born in London. Dr. Blackburn came to the United States in the 1970s because it was ‘notably attractive’ as a place to do science.”

PDF, Telomeres

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