[ASC-media] Australian wins Gruber Prize for Genetics
niall at scienceinpublic.com.au
Wed Oct 11 06:30:26 CEST 2006
The secret of aging?
Elizabeth Blackburn receives the 2006 Gruber Genetics Prize
Embargo/presentation 15.30 EST, 10 October 2006, American Society for
Human Genetics Meeting, New Orleans Convention Center, Hall F
"Elizabeth Blackburn has transformed our understanding of how cells age
and die," says Peter Gruber, Chairman of the Peter Gruber Foundation.
"And she has acted as a true citizen scientist, working to ensure that
public debate on the impact of science on society is well informed and
grounded in fact."
Elizabeth H. Blackburn is the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and
Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the
University of California, San Francisco. She will receive a gold medal
and a US$250,000 cash prize.
In the 1970s, Blackburn showed how, as our cells divide and grow, our
DNA is safely copied and protected. Each chromosome is capped with a
telomere - a small DNA cap that protects the ends from damage. She and
her colleagues then went on to discover telomerase, the enzyme that
repairs the telomeres, and demonstrated the role it plays in normal
cells, cancer cells and aging.
They found that telomerase 'keeps DNA young'. Those cells without
telomerase will eventually die.
"Although telomerase activity is normally kept in check in adult human
cells, throughout life a certain level of telomerase is still required
for replenishment of tissues, such as the immune system," says
Recently she and her University of California, San Francisco colleagues,
including Dr. Elissa Epel, showed that low telomerase in white blood
cells was associated with six of the known major risk factors for
But it's not always good for a cell to stay young. Many cancer cells are
overly rich in telomerase. "Knocking down the high telomerase in cancer
cells also inhibited their growth surprisingly rapidly," says Blackburn
who will present these and other recent results during the Gruber
lecture at the American Society for Human Genetics meeting.
"Not only has Dr. Blackburn opened up a vast field of research," says
Peter Gruber. "She has also fought against the politicization of
science." In 2001 Blackburn was appointed to President Bush's Council on
Bioethics only to be dismissed in 2004 over her insistence that the
council's reports should incorporate the best possible scientific
Shortly after her dismissal, Blackburn said, "As a naturalized citizen
of the United States, I have an immigrant's love for our country. But
our country must not fail us. Scientific advice should and must be
protected from the influence of politics." Blackburn, still also an
Australian citizen, was born in Tasmania, Australia.
The Peter Gruber Foundation was founded in 1993 and established the
first of its international prizes in 2000. The Foundation now supports
five international awards: Cosmology; Genetics, Neuroscience; Justice
and Women's Rights.
The Cosmology Prize was presented in August to NASA's John Mather. Last
week it was announced that he will share the 2006 Nobel Prize in
Physics. The 2006 Justice Prize was awarded to Aharon Barak, recently
retired President of the Supreme Court of Israel.
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