Today, the Nobel Committee announced the winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, equally shared between Elizabeth Blackburn of UCSF, Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins, and Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School–all three American. This year’s prize was awarded for the discovery of telomeres, the repeated sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect the integrity of the chromosomal DNA, and for the discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that builds the telomeres.
This prize recognizes seminal work in molecular genetics and biology that unlocked some of the basic secrets of how our cells function. These studies were also relevant to cancer biology. Most cells in the adult exhibit only limited telomerase activity, meaning that as cells divide and replicate their DNA, the chromosomes’ telomeres become shorter. This limits the number of times a cell can divide and contributes to aging. Cancer cells, however, can exhibit overactive telomerase, allowing them to divide uncontrollably.
Another interesting dimension of this prize is that Elizabeth Blackburn in particular has been highly engaged in the national dialogue on science policy in recent years. In 2004, Blackburn was instrumental in revealing how politically-charged and dysfunctional George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics was. From 2001 to 2004 she served as one of only three full-time biomedical researchers on the 17-to-18-member council. In 2004, she was fired from the council, along with another member who disagreed with the administration’s position on some of the relevant issues.
Blackburn spoke out about the Council of Bioethics, demonstrating that despite its written mission to be a body that monitors research developments and recommends appropriate guidelines, it was really just a tool for parroting the Bush Administration’s positions on certain hot-button issues–particularly embryonic stem cell research. Thus, Blackburn played a central and important role in revealing the extent of the political interference in science that pervaded the Bush Administration.