Two Female Medical Researchers Kick Ass!

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I learned this afternoon that America's highest prize in medicine, the Albany Medical Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, was awarded to two women for the first time in its history. The recipients, Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and Joan Steitz of Yale University will share the $500,000 prize, which is second only to the $1.4 million Nobel Prize. The two medical scientists, who work independently of each other, study proteins associated with DNA and RNA, and their work will likely contribute to treatments for cancer, heart disease, and to treatment of a variety of autoimmune diseases.

According to the website, the Albany Medical Center Prize serves to encourage and recognize extraordinary and sustained contributions to improving patient health care and promoting innovative biomedical research. The Albany Medical Prize, the highest monetary prize for medicine in this country, is being given today at the Hilton Garden Inn at Albany Medical Center.

Both Blackburn and Steitz are molecular biologists. Blackburn, the Morris Herzstein professor of biology and physiology at University of California, San Francisco, studies telomeres, the special regions at the end of chromosomes that serve to stabilize them. She discovered telomerase, a special protein that repairs and lengthens telomeres. Short telomeres are thought to allow chromosomal damage to occur, while long telomeres are thought to contribute to the growth of cancerous cells.

Telomerase might contribute to cancer because, in the later stages of the development of cancer, telomerase becomes hyperactive and "puts the cancer cells on this Energizer-bunny-mode where they just won't stop multiplying," Blackburn said.

Steitz, who is the Sterling professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, discovered small ribonucleoproteins, or snRNPs (pronounced "snurps"). snRNPs perform the vital function of removing non-coding "nonsense" regions from messenger RNAs, ensuring that only the valuable "coding regions" are present for the body to use as a template for building new proteins.

"It's like pruning the deadwood out of a tree and grafting back together the good bits so that it can flourish and live," observed Steitz.

"They do this by simply recognizing the junctions between the sense and the nonsense, and bring the ends together and throwing away the nonsense between and splicing the good bits back together."

Along the way, Steitz's team made the serendipitous discovery that some people produce antibodies that disable snRNPs. Interestingly, these people also developed autoimmune diseases like lupus and scleroderma. As a result, her research has provided for more accurate diagnosis of lupus, scleroderma and some forms of arthritis.

According to what I have heard and read, both Blackburn and Steitz admire the other's work.

"We were pretty lonely," Steitz recalls. "I remember sitting on the committees for years where I was the only woman, and things have changed now."

As one would expect, they both said they were honored to be recipients of this prestigious award. Neither knows what she will do with her half of the prize money, but both appear to have the same idea.

"I do want it to be something that will help women in science to do research," Blackburn said. "Two women winning the prize is so important. It's just sending the message: Women can be scientists too, which is a very daunting thought for a lot of teenagers and younger women looking at careers. That sends a powerful message."

The Albany Medical Prize was established in late 2000 with a $50 million gift from the late Morris "Marty" Silverman to encourage health and biomedical reserch. Silverman promised to light one candle each year to honor that year's Prize recipient(s).

Read more about the two recipients.


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Just outstanding and so well-deserved. Bravo!

The recognition for Blackburn is especially nice after her abrupt dismissal from President Bush's Council on Bioethics in 2004 - there was quite a stir around UCSF.

oh, wow, thanks for reminding me of that! unfortunately, i was distracted in 2004 by trying to continue my career, so i did not spend much time thinking about that, even though it was no doubt very important.

A race of alien tennis players-I mean, cybernetic lifeforms go back into history to try and assimilate the Earth into their Hive Mind. Thus setting the stage for the Final Battle between the plucky humans (and a certain Captain who has been waiting for this battle for some time now.) and introducing one of the coolest villains in screen history, The Borg Queen. Not since the Diva Puvalagona has there been a character that has been both alien and oddly seductive. She's in control, baby, commanding an entire army of nearly unstoppable drones with the blink of an eye. Played to a perfect hilt by Alice Kridge the Borg Queen is how female villains should be, cunning, sly, seductive and dangerous.
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