Statement from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences
October 5, 2009
The 46 human chromosomes are shown in blue, with the telomeres appearing as white pinpoints. Courtesy of Hesed Padilla-Nash and Thomas Ried.
The National Institute of General Medical Sciences congratulates Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., Carol W. Greider, Ph.D., and Jack W. Szostak, Ph.D., on their selection for the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. The Institute has supported their work with more than $22 million in research grants since 1978. Total support from the National Institutes of Health is nearly $33 million.
The scientists were recognized for their discovery of "how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase." Like the plastic tips of shoelaces, telomeres protect chromosomes and the genetic information they contain. We now know that these chromosomal caps play critical roles in human health and disease.
The discoveries that received today’s prize began when Blackburn identified a repeated telomere DNA sequence at the end of chromosomes. In 1982, she and Szostak published results showing that the repeats prevented the chromosomes from degrading. Investigating further, Blackburn and her then-graduate student Greider identified telomerase, the enzyme responsible for adding the repeated nucleotide sequences to the end of each telomere. Using yeast, Szostak offered the first experimental proof that the inability to replenish shortening telomeres causes the structures to shrink, resulting in abnormal chromosome function or cell death. Greider subsequently showed that the same process occurs in human cells as they age.
Because of these advances, scientists worldwide have been exploring ways to turn telomerase on or off, possibly leading to methods for treating cancer and slowing the aging process.
"Driven by their curiosity, these researchers answered fundamental questions about a basic biological process now known to be involved in cancer and cellular aging," said NIGMS director Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D. “Their work has been an important breakthrough for many fields and offers a classic example of how basic, non-disease-targeted research can illuminate our understanding of health and disease in unforeseen ways."
Since its creation in 1962, NIGMS has funded the Nobel Prize-winning work of 70 scientists, including at least one winner in each year since 1997.
More information about NIGMS support of Nobel Prize winners is available at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Education/pages/factsheet_NIGMSNobelists.aspx.