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The 2009 Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine: The Protective Role Of Telomeres In Cell Division

The 100th Nobel Prize® ever awarded was given today to scientists Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, and Jack W. Szostak for their work in the discovery of "how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase."   They received the 2009 Nobel Prize In Physiology or Medicine.  It was the first time in the Nobel Assembly's history that two women have received the honor at the same time.

 

Credit: © The Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine 2009 / Illustration: Annika Röhl (via Science Daily)Credit: © The Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine 2009 / Illustration: Annika Röhl (via Science Daily)

 

Telemares are at the ends of chromosomes and they carry our genetic code.  Though it was suspected that the telemares had some kind of protective function, it was unclear as to what it was until Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak cleared the mystery.  The trio contributed a significant body of work detailing how telemares and the enzyme telomerase perform to keep chromosomes whole even after the cells divide, starting with Blackburn's early sequencing of DNA showing how the telemares are shortened, repeated pieces of DNA, to Blackburn and Szostak demonstrating the protective role of the telemares, to Blackburn and Greider discovering the existence of the enzyme telomerase in maintaining the telemares.

What's all this got to do with us? 

Since the research of Blackburn, Greider and Szostak in the 1970's and 80's, scientists have been able to examine normal and abnormal cells in a new light, observing the impact particularly of overactive telemerase in certain cells, like cancer cells, where telemerase actually provokes constant duplication of cancerous cells. Other telemarese defects include insufficient cell duplication, observed in certain congenital diseases of bone marrow, skin, and lungs.  All of this knowledge enables the development of more targeted therapies for cancer as well as other diseases which involve cell replication.

Natural aging also involves the telemares, which over time lose their ability to replicate as frequently as when they were younger.  Certain syndromes of premature aging show damage to the telemares in the cells.  Telemerase activation therapies are being tested and proposed to 'wake up' cells that are not dividing... thus to combat the syndromes and possibly to extend the lives of normal cells and extend our life spans too!

Sources: Nobelprize.org, The Telomere: Function & Synthesis, Science Daily, Wikipedia