Elizabeth H. Blackburn

2006 Genetics Prize

Laureate Profile

“Elizabeth Blackburn has transformed our understanding of how cells age and die. 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,” said Peter Gruber.

Elizabeth Blackburn is the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco.

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 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.

Not only has 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.