Elizabeth Blackburn receives the 2006 Gruber Genetics Prize

Gruber Prizes, Media releases

Media Release:

The secret of aging?

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 Blackburn.

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 cardiovascular disease.

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 information.

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.

Full media release, background information and photos at www.scienceinpublic.com or contact Niall Byrne: niall@scienceinpublic.com, +1 314 448 9909 – US cell, +61 417 131 977 – Australian cell.

The Peter Gruber Foundation gives international prizes in genetics, neuroscience, cosmology,  justice, and women’s rights. Its goal is to recognize, honor, and encourage individuals who have transformed their fields, and by shining a spotlight on them, encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

The Genetics Prize honors ground-breaking contributions in genomic organization, function, regulation, variation or transmission.

The official citation reads:

“The 2006 Genetics Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation is hereby proudly presented to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD for telomeres and telomerase.

The Prize recognizes her achievements in research and science advocacy.

By discovering the unique structure and mechanism of replication of telomeres, the ends of chromosomes, Dr. Blackburn demonstrated that these genetic elements play a fundamental role in normal development, and in carcinogenesis.

She characterized telomerase, the enzyme responsible for making telomeres, in normally aging cells, in cancer cells, and in stem cells, enabling the development of new drugs based on these biological roles.

Her accuracy and honesty in debates on therapeutic cloning and stem cell research have raised public awareness of the importance of this work and are a model for the role of the scientist as citizen.”

Following the award presentation, Dr. Blackburn will give the Gruber Lecture on responses of cells and organisms to altered telomere maintenance.

Her abstract reads:

“Telomeres are the structures that protect and stabilize the ends of chromosomes, ensuring genomic stability. Telomeres consist of simple DNA sequences, which bind protein factors and make a “cap”. Without telomeric DNA and its special way of replicating, chromosome ends dwindle away, eventually causing cells to stop dividing, a process called cellular senescence. The enzyme telomerase replenishes the DNA at telomeres, partly counteracting the progressive shortening of telomeres throughout the human life span. 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. Recent findings have highlighted the importance of telomerase and telomere length maintenance. For example, low telomerase in white blood cells in young to middle aged humans was found to be associated with six of the known major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

In contrast to many normal cells in human adults, late-stage cancer cells characteristically have very high telomerase levels. A major known function of telomerase in cancer is to replenish telomeric DNA and maintain cell immortality. However, knocking down the high telomerase in cancer cells also inhibited their growth surprisingly rapidly, even without telomere shortening. Rapid and distinct cellular and transcriptional responses were elicited by reducing the level of telomerase RNA component. The distinctive alterations in the gene-expression profiles were predicted to be associated with diminished cancer progression. These and other recent results indicate that telomerase likely plays roles in other aspects of cancer known to be central to cancer progression.”

Dr. Blackburn will receive a gold medal and a $250,000 cash prize.

  • Robert H. Waterston, 2005
  • Mary-Claire King, 2004
  • David Botstein, 2003
  • H. Robert Horvitz, 2002
  • Rudolf Jaenisch, 2001

Genetics Advisory Board

The Genetics Advisory Board, an international panel of experts, chose Elizabeth Blackburn as the recipient of the 2006 Prize.  Its members are:

  • David Botstein
  • Uta Francke
  • H. Robert Horvitz
  • Mary-Claire King
  • Leena Peltonen-Palotie
  • Robert H. Waterston.

Please click on image for full resolution picture

Dr. Blackburn earned her B.Sc. (1970) and M.Sc. (1972) degrees from the University of Melbourne in Australia, and her Ph.D. (1975) from the University of Cambridge in England. She did her postdoctoral work in Molecular and Cellular Biology from 1975 to 1977 at Yale.

In 1978, Dr. Blackburn joined the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley in the Department of Molecular Biology. In 1990, she joined the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UC San Francisco, where she served as Department Chair from 1993 to 1999. Dr. Blackburn is currently a faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow of the Salk Institute.

Throughout her career, Dr. Blackburn has been honored by her peers as the recipient of many prestigious awards. These include the Eli Lilly Research Award for Microbiology and Immunology (1988), the National Academy of Science Award in Molecular Biology (1990), and an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Yale University (1991). She was a Harvey Society Lecturer at the Harvey Society in New York (1990), and the recipient of the UCSF Women’s Faculty Association Award (1995). Most recently, she was awarded the Australia Prize (1998), the Harvey Prize (1999), the Keio Prize (1999), American Association for Cancer Research-G.H.A. Clowes Memorial Award (2000), American Cancer Society Medal of Honor (2000), AACR-Pezcoller Foundation International Award for Cancer Research (2001), General Motors Cancer Research Foundation Alfred P. Sloan Award (2001), E.B.Wil -son Award of the American Society for Cell Biology (2001), 26th Annual Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research (2003), and the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine (2004).

She was named California Scientist of the Year in 1999, elected President of the American Society for Cell Biology for the year 1998, and served as a Board member of the Genetics Society of America (2000-2002). Dr. Blackburn is an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), the Royal Society of London (1992), the American Academy of Microbiology (1993), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2000). She was elected Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences in 1993, and was elected as a Member of the Institute of Medicine in 2000.

For details of the prizes and our partners please visit www.petergruberfoundation.org or contact our media advisor: Niall Byrne – niall@scienceinpublic.com.

  • When contacted in New Orleans tonight for a comment on the Australian stem cell debate, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn said:
    “In Australia as in the United States, scientists need to be willing and available to inform public debate on stem cells and other science-based issues. We need to do what we can to ensure that accurate science is provided for the discussion. We mustn’t over interpret what has been achieved to date. In truth we don’t actually have enough information to choose a path forward yet. So we need to maintain a broad research base.”

  • Sir Gustav Nossal is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Melbourne, a former President of the Australian Academy of Science and Australian of the Year in 2000.
    “Elizabeth Blackburn is one of Australia’s finest scientists and I’m really thrilled to see her win this important and well-endowed prize. I actually think Dr Blackburn is an excellent candidate for a Nobel Prize because her work on cellular aging is critically important to cancer and many other fields.”

  • Professor Sue Serjeantson is Executive Secretary of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS). The Academy is a national, independent, non-profit organisation that was established to promote and share scientific knowledge. The Fellowship of the Academy is made up of about 380 of Australia’s top scientists.
    “The Australian Academy of Science congratulates Elizabeth Blackburn on the award of the 2006 Gruber Genetics Prize. Just last month, Elizabeth shared the prestigious Lasker Award with Carol Greider of John Hopkins University and Jack Szostak, of Harvard University, for their telomerase research. More than 70 Lasker Award recipients, including Australian Peter Doherty, have gone on to win a Nobel Prize. Elizabeth was a popular winner of the Australia Prize, the forerunner to the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, in 1998”.

  • Professor Bob Williamson is Senior Principal Research Fellow of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Professor of Medical Genetics, at the University of Melbourne. One of his major interests is national science policy and ethics and he publishes widely on stem cell science.
    “Professor Liz Blackburn thoroughly deserves this award. Her research into the structure and function of short sequences at the ends of chromosomes, known as telomeres, was instrumental in showing how human cells age over time. Her current studies of telomere shortening and lengthening in embryonic and adult stem cells may allow scientists to prevent cancer when cells are transplanted for therapy. Liz Blackburn studied at the University of Melbourne before moving, first to Cambridge and then the University of California San Francisco, but she has retained close links with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne and with Monash University.”

  • Dr Tracy Bryan is head of the Cell Biology Research Unit at the Children’s Medical Research Institute at Westmead, NSW. During her PhD studies she discovered a new mechanism for maintenance of telomeres in human tumours. Her research continues to focus on the role of telomeres in the growth of cancer cells.
    “It is wonderful to see Elizabeth Blackburn’s work given recognition, since she was responsible for the early, ground-breaking work on telomeres and telomerase. It is also a testament to the value of curiosity-driven research, since the work was carried out in a one-celled pond organism called Tetrahymena. At the time, it was not known that this work would turn out to have such far-reaching implications for cancer and aging in humans. Elizabeth Blackburn’s work has lead to the rapid growth of a large and vibrant field of research, in which there is a lot of interest in developing telomerase inhibitors as potential anti-cancer agents.”

These quotes were collected by the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) www.aussmc.org.

The Peter Gruber Foundation prizes – each with a $250,000 cash award – will be presented as follows:

  • Genetics: Tuesday 10 October at the American Society for Human Genetics Annual Meeting in New Orleans;
  • Neuroscience: on Sunday 15 October at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Atlanta;
  • Women’s Rights: Thursday 2 November at Columbia University Law School, New York City.
  • Cosmology: was presented to John Mather and the COBE team in Prague in August 2006.
  • Justice: was presented to Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel in September 2006.