With all of the commotion over health care reform these days, today’s announcement that the 2009 Nobel prize for physiology or medicine has been awarded to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., Carol W. Greider, Ph.D., and Jack W. Szostak, Ph.D., for their discovery of telomeres and the related enzyme telomerase, serves as a timely reminder of the importance of basic research to medicine.
According to the official Nobel press release: “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.”
The findings have important implications for aging and cancer but the origins are humble. Dr. Szostak and Dr. Blackburn conducted their research with single-celled organisms from pond water (Tetrahymena) and yeast. Notably, none of the three researchears are clinicians.
A look at the last 10 years’ worth of Nobel prizes in physiology and medicine shows that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences seems to favor basic science research in medicine. Only the awards in 2008 and 2005 have obvious clinical ties—HIV/HPV and Helicobacter pylori. The other award recipients have opened up our ability to modify genes using embryonic stem cells, allowed us to see inside the body without picking up a scalpel, and better understand how the nervous system works.
So, ladies and gentlemen, can we have a round of applause please, for all of those unrecognized basic science researchers quietly slaving away over petri dishes, microscopes and chemical assays?
—Kerri Wachter, @knwachter on Twitter