Not only did the discovery of telomeres and telomerase propel cancer science forward on a grand scale, it is also changing the way we explore how to treat other types of disease and how to potentially prolong cell life.
Philadelphia (Vocus) October 6, 2009
The American Association for Cancer Research congratulates its president-elect Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., and AACR member Carol W. Greider, Ph.D., for winning, along with Jack W. Szostak, Ph.D., the Nobel Prize in Medicine, for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.
“Dr. Blackburn, our president-elect, is a scientific pioneer who, along with AACR member Dr. Greider and Dr. Szostak, is revolutionizing the way we look at biology and translational science,” said Margaret Foti, Ph.D., M.D. (h.c.), chief executive officer of the AACR. “Not only did the discovery of telomeres and telomerase propel cancer science forward on a grand scale, it is also changing the way we explore how to treat other types of disease and how to potentially prolong cell life.”
The trio uncovered how chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell division and how they are protected against degradation. The solution is found in the ends of the chromosomes – the telomeres – and in an enzyme that forms them – telomerase. With Szostak, Blackburn discovered that a unique DNA sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from degradation.
In 1985, Blackburn and her then-graduate student Greider identified telomerase, the enzyme that makes telomere DNA. Their research showed that, in some organisms, such as the single-celled pond dweller Tetrahymena, telomerase continuously replenishes the chromosome’s telomeric tips. In humans, however, research showed that telomerase is damped down at certain times in the lives of many types of cells, limiting their ability to self-replenish.
With this discovery, scientists saw the possibility of exploring whether, in humans, the enzyme could be reactivated to prolong cell life to treat age-related diseases, and deactivated to interrupt cancers.
Most normal cells do not divide frequently, therefore, their chromosomes are not at risk of shortening and they do not require high telomerase activity. In contrast, cancer cells have the ability to divide infinitely and yet preserve their telomeres. One explanation became apparent with the finding that cancer cells often have increased telomerase activity. It was, therefore, proposed that cancer might be treated by eradicating telomerase. Several studies are underway in this area, including clinical trials evaluating vaccines directed against cells with elevated telomerase activity.
In recent years, Blackburn and colleagues have investigated the possibility that life stress, the perception of life stress and lifestyle behaviors could take a toll on telomerase and telomeres. They have reported several studies with human participants that suggest a correlation. The findings may offer insight, at the cellular level, into the impact of stress on early onset of age-related diseases.
Blackburn is a co-chair of the American Association for Cancer Research Frontiers in Basic Cancer Research meeting and will address the subject of “Cellular Responses to Telomerase Peturbations” on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009, in Boston.
Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research, is the Morris Herzstein professor of biology and physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco. She is a member of the scientific advisory committee for Stand Up To Cancer, that recently awarded $73.6 million to translational research Dream Teams for projects that could impact the diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of cancers in adults and children across ethnicities including, but not limited to, pancreatic, breast, ovarian, cervical, uterine, brain, lung, prostate, rectal and colon, which represents two thirds of all U.S. cancer deaths.
Blackburn is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the American Academy of Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. From 2002 to 2004, she served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and is the recipient of numerous national and international awards, including the Kirk A. Landon-AACR Prize for Basic Cancer Research. Blackburn is the chair of the AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research Committee and has served as senior editor of Molecular Cancer Research.
Blackburn earned her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees from the University of Melbourne in Australia. She received her doctorate from the University of Cambridge in England. From 1975 to 1977, Blackburn did her postdoctoral work in molecular and cellular biology at Yale, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.
Carol W. Greider, Ph.D., studied at the University of California in Santa Barbara and in Berkeley, where she obtained her doctorate in 1987 with Blackburn as her supervisor. After conducting her postdoctoral research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Greider was appointed professor in the department of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore in 1997.