US trio wins Nobel Medicine Prize for research into ageing

Australian-American researcher Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider and Jack Szostak of the United States won the Nobel Medicine Prize on Monday for identifying a key molecular switch in cellular ageing.

The trio were honoured for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the role of an enzyme called telomerase in maintaining or stripping away this vital shield.

“The award of the Nobel Prize recognises the discovery of a fundamental mechanism in the cell, a discovery that has stimulated the development of new therapeutic strategies,” the Nobel jury said.

The three told Swedish Radio they were overjoyed by the news.

Greider said she was “just thrilled, I just think that the recognition for curiosity-driven basic science is very, very nice”, adding that she was up doing laundry in the US when the early morning call came from Sweden.


Blackburn said she knew when they made their discovery that they were on to something big.

“I felt very excited … and I thought this is very interesting, this is a very important result, and you don’t often feel that about a result,” she said.

Szostak said, meanwhile, he expected “to have a big party at some point” to celebrate the prestigious award.

Telomeres are a minute yet vital factor in ageing. They are like a nubby, protective cap, fitting on the ends of the strands of DNA — the chemical recipe for life — that are packed into chromosomes.

Blackburn and Szostak discovered in 1982 that a unique DNA sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from degradation when the cells divide. With Greider, Blackburn also identified telomerase, the enzyme that makes the telomere DNA.

If telomeres become worn, cells age.

But if telomerase levels are high, the telomere length is maintained, and cellular ageing is braked. A small number of rare but very destructive diseases, including a form of severe anaemia, are linked to defective telomerase, resulting in damaged cells.

Yet there is also a darker and more complex side to this picture.

Many experts initially speculated that ageing could be pinned to telomere shortening, but the process has emerged as something that encompasses different factors, as well as telomeres.

In addition, high telomerase also helps cancer, enabling its cells to replicate endlessly and achieve what scientists call “cellular immortality”.

Finding ways of blocking this machinery through “telomerase inhibitors” is one of the most eagerly explored areas of cancer research.

The trio’s work has “added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies”, the Nobel citation said.

The three won the 2006 Lasker Prize, one of the most prestigious US science awards, for the same work.

Blackburn has been a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California in San Francisco since 1990, while Greider is a professor in the department of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Szostak is professor of genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Last year, the Nobel Medicine Prize went to France’s Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, who shared one half of the award, for discovering the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes Aids.

Harald zur Hausen of Germany won the other half for research that went against the then-current dogma to claim that a virus, the human papillomavirus (HPV), causes cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women.

The medicine prize is the first award to be announced in this year’s Nobel season.

The physics prize is to be announced on Tuesday followed by the chemistry prize on Wednesday. The literature prize will be announced on Thursday and the peace prize on Friday.

The economics prize will wrap up the awards on October 12.

The Nobel prizes, founded by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, were first awarded in 1901.

Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, died childless in 1896, dedicating his vast fortune to create “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”.

Laureates receive a gold medal, a diploma and 10-million Swedish kronor ($1,42-million) which can be split between up to three winners per prize. The prizes are awarded in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10. — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Why we must fight to secure places for more women and young people in politics

Too often, governments talk the talk on gender equality, but fail to walk the walk

Some African countries are choosing livelihoods over lockdowns

The methods that work in Western nations rarely translate into African contexts

South Africa’s fumbling response to Covid-19 poses questions

A strict lockdown is not only unenforceable, but the question must be asked: is it necessary at all? The examples of South Korea, Taiwan and Sweden suggest perhaps not

Lockdown or no lockdown: we face hard choices for complex times

There are no available options for containing the spread of Covid-19 that do not have serious economic costs. We need to listen to expertise, not ill-considered opinion

Thandika Mkandawire: An intellectual giant, an pan-Africanist

Thandika Mkandawire, who died in Stockholm, Sweden, on March 27 after a battle with cancer, was a renowned development economist, an institution builder and a pan-Africanist

Covid-19’s silver lining: A taste of a post-development world

The coronavirus epidemic has thrown issues such as gross income and ownership inequality into the spotlight, as we try to find ways to navigate through this crisis
Advertising

Subscribers only

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

More top stories

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Catholic NGO boss accused of racism and abuse in Sudan

The aid worker allegedly called his security guard a ‘slave’

Agrizzi too ill to be treated at Bara?

The alleged crook’s “health emergency” — if that is what it is — shows up the flaws, either in our health system or in our leadership as a whole

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday