When a cell divides, the end, called a tenomere, becomes shorter, but the three discovered an enzyme, called telomerese, that can lengthens the tenomere, and therefore keeping the cell protected.
“It gives us a way to understand the balance that occurs in cells,” explained one of the winners, Carol Greider, a professor of microbiology and genetics at Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. The trio made the Nobel-worthy discovery in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
The other winners are Elizabeth Blackburn, an Australian-born molecular biologist and biochemist at the University of California San Francisco, and Jack Szostak, a British-born professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and a researcher with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This is the first year two women have shared the prize for Medicine.
“We have fifty percent of the brains out there,” Greider told the NewsHour, “but it’s true that there haven’t been as many women lab heads in the past. And so what I’m hoping is that as the Nobels start to catch up, it will be more reflective of the kind of discoveries being made by women.”
The discovery has implications on issues like aging and cancer. “If you can block the telomerase from acting, then the tenomeres will naturally become shorter and then you’d have a way to actually kill those cancer cells,” explained Greider. She says, though, that researchers still need to answer the question “whether or not that would actually be a useful treatment now in human patients.”
Greider spoke with the NewsHour earlier today by phone from Baltimore. Listen to the full interview here: