October 05, 2009

Nobel season '09: Physiology or Medicine

It's that time of the year again! Today at 11.30 local time the 2009 Nobel prize in Medicine or Physiology will be announced. My favorite candidates for the past few years have been Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for the discovery of telomerase and the importance of telomeres, the tips of the chromosomes that prevent the DNA molecule from "unraveling" at the ends. Every time a cell divides the DNA spirals have to "open" and in the process a little bit of the DNA in the telomeres is chopped off. To counteract this and prevent coding DNA from being chopped off the enzyme telomerase adds a little snippet of DNA with a specific sequence at the ends. This is an incredibly interesting reaction that raises questions in the fields of cell biology, genetics, genomics and evolution, and has implications for the study of aging and cancer.

We'll see if this is the year my predictions come true. There's a lot of buzz over Ernest McCulloch and James Till, the first scientist to prove the existence of stem cells derived from bone marrow, also a very worthy discovery.

>> Update 12.26

Back from lunch and what do I see? I was right! I guess that if you go for the same people year after year sooner or later it's going to happen.

This is a really great acknowledgment. Not only is it a really great discovery, but it's also rewarding two women scientists. I'm looking forward to the Nobel lecture in December already.

Here's a short summary from the Nobel assembly's press release:

This year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to three scientists who have solved a major problem in biology: how the chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation. The Nobel Laureates have shown that the solution is to be found in the ends of the chromosomes – the telomeres – and in an enzyme that forms them – telomerase.

The long, thread-like DNA molecules that carry our genes are packed into chromosomes, the telomeres being the caps on their ends. Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak discovered that a unique DNA sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from degradation. Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn identified telomerase, the enzyme that makes telomere DNA. These discoveries explained how the ends of the chromosomes are protected by the telomeres and that they are built by telomerase.

If the telomeres are shortened, cells age. Conversely, if telomerase activity is high, telomere length is maintained, and cellular senescence is delayed. This is the case in cancer cells, which can be considered to have eternal life. Certain inherited diseases, in contrast, are characterized by a defective telomerase, resulting in damaged cells. The award of the Nobel Prize recognizes the discovery of a fundamental mechanism in the cell, a discovery that has stimulated the development of new therapeutic strategies.

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