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2006 Gruber Genetics Prize Press Release

Elizabeth Blackburn Headshot
Elizabeth H. Blackburn


The secret of aging?

New Orleans, Oct. 10, 2006

"Elizabeth Blackburn has transformed our understanding of how cells age and die," says Peter Gruber, Chairman of the Peter Gruber Foundation. "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."

Elizabeth H. Blackburn is the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco. She will receive a gold medal and a US$250,000 cash prize.

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 Dr. 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 who will present these and other recent results during the Gruber lecture at the American Society for Human Genetics meeting.

"Not only has Dr. 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.

The Peter Gruber Foundation was founded in 1993 and established the first of its international prizes in 2000. The Foundation now supports five international awards: Cosmology; Genetics, Neuroscience; Justice and Women's Rights.

The Cosmology Prize was presented in August to NASA's John Mather. Last week it was announced that he will share the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics. The 2006 Justice Prize was awarded to Aharon Barak, recently retired President of the Supreme Court of Israel.

Full media release, background information and photos at or contact Niall Byrne:, +1 314 448 9909 – US cell, +61 417 131 977 – Australian cell.

Background: 2006 Genetics Prize

The Peter Gruber Foundation gives international prizes in genetics, neuroscience, cosmology, justice, and women's rights. Its goal is to recognize, honor, and encourage individuals who have transformed their fields, and by shining a spotlight on them, encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

The Genetics Prize honors ground-breaking contributions in genomic organization, function, regulation, variation or transmission.

The official citation reads:

"The 2006 Genetics Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation is hereby proudly presented to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD for telomeres and telomerase.

The Prize recognizes her achievements in research and science advocacy.

By discovering the unique structure and mechanism of replication of telomeres, the ends of chromosomes, Dr. Blackburn demonstrated that these genetic elements play a fundamental role in normal development, and in carcinogenesis.

She characterized telomerase, the enzyme responsible for making telomeres, in normally aging cells, in cancer cells, and in stem cells, enabling the development of new drugs based on these biological roles.

Her accuracy and honesty in debates on therapeutic cloning and stem cell research have raised public awareness of the importance of this work and are a model for the role of the scientist as citizen."

Following the award presentation, Dr. Blackburn will give the Gruber Lecture on responses of cells and organisms to altered telomere maintenance.

Her abstract reads:

"Telomeres are the structures that protect and stabilize the ends of chromosomes, ensuring genomic stability. Telomeres consist of simple DNA sequences, which bind protein factors and make a "cap". Without telomeric DNA and its special way of replicating, chromosome ends dwindle away, eventually causing cells to stop dividing, a process called cellular senescence. The enzyme telomerase replenishes the DNA at telomeres, partly counteracting the progressive shortening of telomeres throughout the human life span. 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. Recent findings have highlighted the importance of telomerase and telomere length maintenance. For example, low telomerase in white blood cells in young to middle aged humans was found to be associated with six of the known major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

In contrast to many normal cells in human adults, late-stage cancer cells characteristically have very high telomerase levels. A major known function of telomerase in cancer is to replenish telomeric DNA and maintain cell immortality. However, knocking down the high telomerase in cancer cells also inhibited their growth surprisingly rapidly, even without telomere shortening. Rapid and distinct cellular and transcriptional responses were elicited by reducing the level of telomerase RNA component. The distinctive alterations in the gene-expression profiles were predicted to be associated with diminished cancer progression. These and other recent results indicate that telomerase likely plays roles in other aspects of cancer known to be central to cancer progression."

Dr. Blackburn will receive a gold medal and a $250,000 cash prize.

Past winners of the Genetics Prize

  • Robert H. Waterston, 2005
  • Mary-Claire King, 2004
  • David Botstein, 2003
  • H. Robert Horvitz, 2002
  • Rudolf Jaenisch, 2001

Genetics Advisory Board

The Genetics Advisory Board, an international panel of experts, chose Elizabeth Blackburn as the recipient of the 2006 Prize. Its members are:

  • David Botstein
  • Uta Francke
  • H. Robert Horvitz
  • Mary-Claire King
  • Leena Peltonen-Palotie
  • Robert H. Waterston.

Other Peter Gruber Foundation Prizes

The Peter Gruber Foundation prizes - each with a $250,000 cash award – will be presented as follows:

  • Genetics: Tuesday 10 October at the American Society for Human Genetics Annual Meeting in New Orleans;
  • Neuroscience: on Sunday 15 October at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Atlanta;
  • Women's Rights: Thursday 2 November at Columbia University Law School, New York City.
  • Cosmology: was presented to John Mather and the COBE team in Prague in August 2006.

Justice: was presented to Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel in September 2006.