Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Nobel Prize in Medicine 2009

"for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase"

Jack W.Szostak

Carol W. Greider

Elizabeth H. Blackburn

The Baltimore Sun

Carol W. Greider, who on Monday became the 33rd person associated with the Johns Hopkins University to win the Nobel Prize, is a triathlete, a mother of two and a methodical and modest genetic researcher who colleagues say shuns publicity in favor of pursuing her passion: fundamental, curiosity-driven science.

Greider's breakthrough that won the ultimate scientific honor dates back two decades. During that time she has been catapulted to the top of her field - showered with grants, accolades and coveted prizes. And yet, news of the Nobel Prize left her breathless.

"My heart just started racing," she said.

Her rise to pioneering scientist and professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine began on Christmas Day 1984. The ambitious 23-year-old graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, was so excited about an experiment she was conducting, she went to the empty lab to check on its progress. What she detected on a piece of X-ray film led to the discovery of an enzyme called telomerase, a substance that plays a crucial role in the genetic life of cells and holds promise for developing treatments to fight cancer and age-related diseases.

"Carol is a classical, iconic scientist in the sense that she does her work quietly and doesn't seek the limelight and yet makes substantive discoveries like telomerase," said Dr. Chi Van Dang, the Hopkins medical school's vice dean for research. "She's very methodical, very thorough, and works passionately. Every piece of her work is like a masterpiece. She doesn't like to sketch things and throw them out."

Greider, 48, joins just nine other women who have won the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology of the 192 winners since the awards were first handed out in 1901. (In all categories from 1901 to 2008, just 35 women have won the prize, compared with 754 men.) Greider shares the award - which includes a total cash prize of $1.4 million - with Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco, and Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School. It's the first time the prize has been awarded to more than one woman.

"A scientist, a teacher, a department chair, a mom, you're really a lady for all seasons," Dr. Peter C. Agre, a Hopkins researcher awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003, said during a news conference at Hopkins medical school attended by many admiring colleagues. "We bask in your glory."

Greider acknowledged the award was a triumph for women in science and said she hopes it opens the door for future winners.

"I think the number of women in science doing high-powered research is quite remarkable," she said. "But the total number of Nobel Prizes going to women has sort of lagged behind."

Awake with time to kill before her morning spin class on Monday, Greider was folding the laundry when the call came from the chair of the Nobel committee notifying her of the honor.

The typically poised Greider said she was shocked. She then made a joke about the committee giving her 45 minutes to prepare before the announcement became formal - enough time to take a shower. "I was glad for those extra 45 minutes," she said.

Soon after, Greider woke up her children, Gwendolyn Comfort, 9, and Charles Comfort, 13, who were elated. "My mom was shaking me, saying 'I won the Nobel Prize!' and I was like, whoa!" said Gwendolyn, who scribbled notes throughout the news conference as a keepsake.

Then the phone started ringing and it didn't stop for three hours, with congratulations pouring in from all over. Neighbors in the family's Roland Park community were stopping by to offer their good wishes. One even erected a giant congratulatory banner across their home's front porch, which was outfitted with balloons.

Greider accepted the accolades in her trademark self-effacing manner. She said the honor is a tribute to the entire telomere field, not simply her work.

"The discovery of telomerase was an important discovery at the time, but it's really the subsequent implications of what it has to do with disease that really makes this day possible," she said. "I'm indebted to all the people in my lab as well as all the many laboratories in the world who have made these discoveries."

While the science behind it is complex, Greider says the finding was sparked by something quite simple: scientific curiosity.

"Simply by going into the lab and being curious about this very fundamental question, we made the discovery that there is this enzyme telomerase that maintains these chromosome ends," she said. "I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to really play and be able to do science and just follow what was the most interesting thing to do."

Greider grew up in Davis, Calif., where her father was a physicist at the University of California. He was her role model for her pursuit of scientific research and the "academic freedom and the importance of liking what you do," she said. Greider graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a bachelor's degree in biology in 1983 and earned a doctorate in molecular biology in 1987 from the University of California, Berkeley. After working at a laboratory in New York, she came in 1997 to Hopkins, where she is the Daniel Nathans professor and director of molecular biology and genetics at the Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences.

In 2006, she won the Lasker Award, nicknamed the "American Nobel," for her work with telomerase.

Dang said Greider reminds him of the late Nathans, another "classic scientist" who won the Nobel Prize in 1978 along with Hamilton O. Smith, both Hopkins faculty members.

"This award recognizes work of incomparable originality and insight," said Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels. "Carol's work really demonstrates how all of our aspirations and hopes for our colleagues can be fulfilled in such a dramatic and arresting way."

She's also a role model for a new generation of scientists, said Agre. "Young scientists have to realize Carol was in graduate school: On her first rotation she did an experiment that changed everything," he said. "So science is for young people."

Recent Nobel Prize winners in science and medicine affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University
Carol Greider

Daniel Nathans professor and director of molecular biology and genetics

Institute of Basic Biomedical Sciences, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

Andrew Fire

Adjunct professor of biology

Nobel Prize in Medicine, 2006

Dr. Richard Axel

1971 medical school graduate

Nobel Prize in Medicine, 2004

Dr. Peter Agre

Director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute

Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2003

Paul Greengard

Ph.D. in biophysics, 1953

Nobel Prize in Medicine, 2000

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