Five NIH grantees and one former grantee won 2009 Nobel prizes in medicine/physiology and chemistry.
The 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to three NIH grantees—Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Dr. Jack Szostak of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Supported by NIH for decades, the three are honored for discovering how chromosomes are protected against degradation by telomeres through the enzyme telomerase.
Cancer and aging research merge in the study of telomeres, the tails at the ends of chromosomes that become shorter as a cell divides. All telomeres have the same short sequence of DNA bases repeated thousands of times. Rather than containing any genetic information, these repetitive snippets help keep chromosomes intact. The enzyme telomerase, which builds telomeres, enables the entire length of the chromosome to be copied without missing the end portion.
“The question of how cellular aging relates to abnormal cell division, such as cancer, and the aging of organisms continues to be the focus of rigorous study, thanks to the insights of Drs. Greider, Blackburn and Szostak,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. “These NIH grantees’ discoveries offer a classic example of how basic science research driven by investigators’ curiosity can illuminate our understanding of health and disease.”
NIH has granted a total of more than $32 million to the three.
NIGMS has provided more than $13 million to fund Blackburn’s work since 1978, more than $6 million to support Greider’s work (since 1990) and more than $3 million to assist Szostak (since 1980).
“Driven by their curiosity, these researchers answered fundamental questions about a basic biological process now known to be involved in cancer and cellular aging,” said NIGMS director Dr. Jeremy Berg. “Their work has been an important breakthrough for many fields.”
In addition, the National Cancer Institute and National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research provided more than $2 million and $400,000, respectively, to support Blackburn. Greider has also received more than $7 million from the National Institute on Aging. She is also the recipient of a Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award, a grant mechanism initiated by NIA.
The 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry went to grantees Dr. Thomas Steitz of Yale University and Dr. Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel. They shared the award with a former NIH grantee, Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, U.K. The three researchers are honored for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome. Ribosomes produce proteins, which in turn control the chemistry in all living organisms.
“Understanding the ribosome’s inner workings is important for a scientific understanding of life,” said Collins. “Thanks to the 3-D models created by these three researchers showing how various antibodies bind to the ribosome, scientists can now develop new antibiotics that will ultimately save lives and decrease suffering.”
NIH has granted more than $17 million to the three.
NIGMS has provided more than $8 million to support the work of Steitz since 1971, nearly $4 million to support Yonath (since 1985) and more than $2 million to support Ramakrishnan (beginning in 1979).
In addition, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Center for Research Resources provided more than $1 million and more than $800,000, respectively, to support Steitz. NCRR also granted more than $800,000 to Yonath.