Monday, May 05, 2008

Blackburn and Steitz win the Albany Medical Center Prize

On May 2, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research was awarded to Joan Steitz and and Elizabeth Blackburn. It is the first time that the award has gone to a woman since its inception in 2001. Even though the prize is fairly new, it's the largest monetary award - $500,000 - given for biomedical research in the United States.

Elizabeth Blackburn is the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at the University of California San Francisco. She was given the award for her discovery and characterization of the enzyme telomerase. From the press release:

Before Dr. Blackburn’s research, the “clock” that determines cellular life was a mystery. Shortening of chromosomes, which carry key genetic information, continually occurs naturally over time until the telomeres become too short and the cell dies. She demonstrated that telomerase can “turn back the hands of the clock” by replenishing the chromosomes by “adding DNA back into their ends.”

In more recent experiments with a UCSF psychologist, Dr. Blackburn’s team has shown a direct link between low levels of telomerase and chronic stress that can promote early onset of age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders. Dr. Blackburn and her team are now exploring the potential role that the enzyme could eventually play in neurodegenerative and other age-related disorders. The goal of some current trials is to see whether telomerase can be inhibited in order to slow and perhaps halt the progression of cancer.

Joan Steitz is the Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale, where she is best known for "discovering and defining the function of small ribonucleoprotteins (snRNPs) in pre-messenger RNA". From the press release:
Dr. Steitz’ uncovering of the previously mysterious splicing process elucidates the science behind the formation of proteins, essential components of all of our biological processes including the intricate metamorphoses that occur as the immune system and brain develop. Understanding just how splicing occurs is important because it may someday enable scientists to prevent a variety of human genetic diseases. In, fact, many scientists believe that Dr. Steitz’ research will ultimately lead to breakthroughs in diagnosing and treating patients with lupus and other serious autoimmune disorders.
They are both clearly well-deserving of the prize.

ETA: Check out GrrlScientist's post for more about Blackburn and Steitz's research.

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