A molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology today for the discovery of an enzyme that is essential to normal cell function and plays a role in cell aging and most cancers.

Elizabeth H. Blackburn, 60, of UCSF was one of three joint winners announced today for discovering telomerase, the enzyme that protects genetic material in cells and maintains healthy cell division, according to the Nobel Academy.

One of the other winners, Carol W. Greider, was a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley under Blackburn when she observed enzymatic activity in 1984 that eventually led to the prize-winning discoveries.

“The discoveries… have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies,” the Nobel Academy said in a statement.

Jack W. Szostak, a genetics professor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, was the third winner.

Their prize-wining research focused on chromosomes, the part of the cell where genetic material is stored, and the caps on the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres.

Telomeres protect genetic material in the chromosomes, maintain chromosomal stability, and insure accurate cell division, according to UCSF.

Blackburn and Szostak discovered the DNA sequence in telomeres that protects chromosomes from breaking down, the Nobel Academy said. Greider and Blackburn discovered the enzyme that creates telomeres: telomerase.

If the telomeres are shortened, cells age. In some inherited diseases, telomerase is defective and the cells become damaged. In cancer cells, the telemorase activity is often too high, and the cells divide indefinitely.

Understanding telomerase brings scientists closer to understanding the complex aging process, the Nobel Academy said. It has stimulated new therapeutic strategies for fighting age-related diseases such as blindness, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases.

It has also opened up investigations into whether deactivating telemorase in cancer patients could reduce the spread of cancerous cells.

Blackburn was born in 1948 in Australia and attended the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate. She received her PhD in 1975 from the University of Cambridge, England, and joined the UC Berkeley staff after doing post-doctoral research at Yale University, according to the Nobel Academy.

She has been a professor of at UCSF since 1990, and she currently holds the Morris Herzstein Endowed Chair in Biology and Physiology in the biochemistry and biophysics department, according to the school. Her husband is also a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF.

Greider was born in 1961 in San Diego and did her undergraduate work at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She received her PhD from UC Berkeley in 1987, where Blackburn was her supervisor, the Nobel Academy said. She has been a professor of molecular biology and genetics at John Hopkins University since 1997.

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