Decades of work that has inspired experimental cancer therapies and offered insight into aging has earned a UC San Francisco scientist a Nobel Prize and a place in history.
Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor of biology and physiology at the UCSF and two other scientists won a Nobel Prize on Monday for discoveries about key aspects of how cells and animals age.
It was the first time two women have shared in a single Nobel in the science category.
For the 60-year-old Blackburn — who was given the award along with Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Jack W. Szostak of Harvard Medical School — there is also the splitting of the $1.4 million prize and the recognition of being one of the 10 women who have won the Nobel in medicine.
The work by the trio has led to the discovery of telomeres, small sections of DNA that protect the integrity of cellular DNA as animals and most other organisms age. They also discovered telomerase, the enzyme that manufactures telomeres and gives cancer cells their eternal life.
<p>Their work, done in the 1970s and 1980s, showed how telomeres can keep the chromosomes from getting progressively shorter as cells divide. It’s been compared to the way plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces keep the laces from fraying.
The trio’s discoveries “have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms and stimulated the development of potential new therapies,” according to the Nobel citation.
At the Nobel-winner’s bustling lab at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus on Monday, colleagues and co-workers gathered to fête the Tasmanian-born researcher who students and co-workers describe as a down-to-earth person.
“She’s the most gracious, most humble, most intelligent person I know,” 26-year-old researcher Kyle Lapham said. “I chose [to go to UCSF] based on the fact that she was here.”
The road from being born in Hobart, Tasmania, to being given an internationally acclaimed award also brought Blackburn across several continents.
She earned bachelors and masters degrees at the University of Melbourne in Australia in the early 1970s before earning her Ph.D.
at the University of Cambridge in England in 1975. From there, she did her postdoctoral work about molecular and cellular biology from 1975-1977 at Yale.
Blackburn arrived in the Bay Area in 1978, teaching at UC Berkeley, before moving on to UCSF in 1990.
Blackburn joked Monday that the award was taking getting used to.
During a news conference, she said she had gone through the five stages of happiness after the phone rang in the middle of the night. “I went through, ‘Where’s the phone?’ to disbelief to dazed to, ‘I think it’s sinking in now,’ to, ‘I’m just so happy.’”
Nobel winner’s award highlights
Before being presented the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, UCSF professor Elizabeth Blackburn, who teaches in biology and physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the university, has been honored by her peers as the recipient of many prestigious awards.
1991: Elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1992: Elected a Fellow of Royal Society of London
1993: Elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. Elected Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences
1998: Elected a President of the American Society for Cell Biology
2000: Elected a Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science
2006: Awarded the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award in Basic Medical Research
2007: Named of one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People
2008: North American Laureate for L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science
— Wire reports
Examiner Staff Writer Mike Aldax contributed to this report.