Two groundbreaking scientists share america's largest medicine prize

Two groundbreaking scientists share america's largest medicine prize

America's largest prize for work in medicine, amounting to half a million dollars, is shared this year by two scientists, Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco and Joan Streitz of Yale University, for their groundbreaking work in molecular research that opens up development of new and effective treatments for a range of diseases.

This is the first time that women have received the prestigious Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.

Blackburn is Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at UCSF. She has a worldwide reputation for her pioneering work on telomeres, the DNA sequences at the end of chromosomes (the "bookends" that hold everything together). She discovered the ribonucleoprotein enzyme telomerase, which strengthens telomeres.

Before this research, the "clock" of cellular life was a mystery to scientists. Telomeres becomes progressively shorter over the life of a cell and when they become too short, the cell dies. Blackburn showed that telomerase can add DNA back to the ends of telomeres and effectively turn back the clock.

Blackburn's more recent work with psychology has shown a link between low levels of telomerase and chronic stress that can lead to early onset of a range of age-related conditions such as neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases. She also hopes to find out if it is possible to stop cancer by manipulating telomerase.

President and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center, James J Barba, who chaired the National Selection Committee, said:

"Dr Blackburn's studies of this fascinating enzyme and its effect on cellular aging may hold the key to prolonging life by helping to treat a variety of diseases and disorders from cancer to chronic stress."

Steitz is Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale. She achieved global recognition when she found out how small ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) behave in pre-messenger RNA, the earliest product of DNA transcription. She discovered that snRNPs get rid of introns, the useless chunks of DNA and pre-messenger RNA, by "splicing" them out and then joining the severed ends together to make messenger RNA. Messenger RNA then instruct the production of proteins, the essential building blocks of the body's biology.

Steitz's work shed light on the formation of proteins, and especially on the intricate transformations that occur as the immune system and brain develop. Understanding more about the "splicing" function of snRNPs may lead to discoveries about how to prevent many human diseases.

Barba said that:

"Many scientists believe that Dr Steitz's research may ultimately lead to breakthroughs in treating a variety of autoimmune diseases including lupus."

"Dr Steitz and Dr Blackburn are among the greatest scientists of our generation. The potential impact of their research is extraordinary and we all owe them a great debt of gratitude," he added.

The Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research started in 2000 with a 50 million dollar endowment from the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation to enable the prize to be given annually for 100 years. The late Morris "Marty" Silverman was a businessman from New York.

Source: Albany Medical Center press release.

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