I almost literally grew up in the shadow of the Albany Medical Center. Many of my family members were at one time or another employed there, perhaps cleaning the floor while in high school or in a clerical position as a part time job, etc. I have been in and out of the emergency room there countless times (though hardly ever as the patient). Some of my favorite stories begin or end at AMC.

Well, I never realized it before, but the Albany Medical College (part of the center) has a thing called the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research which is, according to many, up there with the Nobel Prize in importance. And just now, the prize was awarded to two women doing important research … Elizabeth Blackburn and Joan Steitz.

From the Press Release:

Albany, N.Y., May 2, 2008 – Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, and Joan Steitz, Ph.D., of Yale University–whose groundbreaking molecular research may lead to more effective treatments for a variety of diseases–are the first women scientists to be named recipients of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, America’s largest prize in medicine.

The co-recipients of the 2008 Albany Medical Center Prize, who will share the $500,000 award, were honored at a news conference and luncheon held today (May 2) at the Hilton Garden Inn at Albany Medical Center.

Dr. Blackburn, the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at UCSF, is world renowned for her groundbreaking discoveries of the molecular nature of telomeres, the simple DNA sequences that constitute “the bookends at the end of chromosomes that hold everything in place”–and for her discovery of the ribonucleoprotein enzyme telomerase, which fortifies telomeres.

“Dr. Blackburn’s studies of this fascinating enzyme and its effect on cellular aging may hold the key to prolonging life by helping to treat a variety of diseases and disorders from cancer to chronic stress,” said James J. Barba, president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center, who served as chairman of the National Selection Committee.

Dr. Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale, is similarly revered in scientific circles for her pioneering work in RNA. She is best known for discovering and defining the function of small ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) in pre-messenger RNA–the earliest product of DNA transcription. In her research, she was the first to learn that these cellular complexes (snRNPs) play a key role in recognizing and eliminating introns–the numerous useless segments found in DNA and pre-messenger RNA. The snRNPs excise the introns and splice together the resulting segments to create messenger RNA, the makers of proteins which are critical components for carrying out the body’s most basic biological processes.

“Many scientists believe that Dr. Steitz’ research may ultimately lead to breakthroughs in treating a variety of autoimmune diseases including lupus,” Barba said. “Dr. Steitz and Dr. Blackburn are among the greatest scientists of our generation. The potential impact of their research is extraordinary and we all owe them a great debt of gratitude.”

The Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research was established in the fall of 2000 when the late Morris “Marty” Silverman announced a gift of $50 million from the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation to Albany Med to establish the prize to be given annually for 100 years.

Before Dr. Blackburn’s research, the “clock” that determines cellular life was a mystery. Shortening of chromosomes, which carry key genetic information, continually occurs naturally over time until the telomeres become too short and the cell dies. She demonstrated that telomerase can “turn back the hands of the clock” by replenishing the chromosomes by “adding DNA back into their ends.”

In more recent experiments with a UCSF psychologist, Dr. Blackburn’s team has shown a direct link between low levels of telomerase and chronic stress that can promote early onset of age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders. Dr. Blackburn and her team are now exploring the potential role that the enzyme could eventually play in neurodegenerative and other age-related disorders. The goal of some current trials is to see whether telomerase can be inhibited in order to slow and perhaps halt the progression of cancer.

Dr. Steitz’ uncovering of the previously mysterious splicing process elucidates the science behind the formation of proteins, essential components of all of our biological processes including the intricate metamorphoses that occur as the immune system and brain develop. Understanding just how splicing occurs is important because it may someday enable scientists to prevent a variety of human genetic diseases. In, fact, many scientists believe that Dr. Steitz’ research will ultimately lead to breakthroughs in diagnosing and treating patients with lupus and other serious autoimmune disorders.

Dr. Blackburn earned her B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees from the University of Melbourne in Australia, and her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in England. She did her postdoctoral work in molecular and cellular biology at Yale University and later joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley in the department of molecular biology. Subsequently, she joined the department of microbiology and immunology at UCSF, where she served as department chair. She is currently a professor in the department of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow of the Salk Institute. In 2007, Dr. Blackburn was listed among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the Institute of Medicine, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Society of London.

Dr. Steitz started her illustrious career as a graduate student at Harvard, the sole woman in the biochemistry and molecular biology graduate program. She earned her Ph.D. in 1967. After completing post-doctoral work at the Medical Research Council Lab of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, she joined the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, first as an assistant professor and later as an associate and full professor. She also was the Josiah Macy Scholar at the Max Planck Institut fur Biophysikalische Chemie in Gottingen, Germany and at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. In addition, she was the Fairchild Distinguished Fellow at the California Institute of Technology, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She served as chair of the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale and currently serves as the Sterling Professor there. Dr. Steitz is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Both scientists have received numerous other national awards and honors as well as a number of honorary degrees.

(see also this)