Carol Greider, a Johns Hopkins University professor and research scientist, won the Nobel Prize on Monday. She celebrated by … going to work anyway and taking along her children - Gwendolyn, 9, and Charles, 12.
“They put her [Gwendolyn] to work,” Ms. Greider, 48, told The Washington Times, saying both are following the family tradition by being interested in science.
Ms. Greider, director of molecular biology and genetics at the Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, was announced Monday as one of three winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Her co-winners are Elizabeth H. Blackburn, 60, a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California at San Francisco, and Jack W. Szostak, 56, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.
The trio won for solving a crucial problem in cell biology - identifying and fully documenting chromosome activity that can be a marker of how cells age. Such knowledge can be used to understand and perhaps treat the abnormal division of cancer cells.
The scientists will be honored at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10 and will split the $1.4 million award. In 2006, the trio also shared the Lasker Prize for basic medical research, known as the American Nobel.
It is the first time in the history of the medicine prize, which has been awarded since 1901, that two women were honored in the same year. Both are Americans, although Ms. Blackburn also holds Australian citizenship. Mr. Szostak was born in London.
All three scientists are working professors, whose work was funded since 1978 by grants worth nearly $32 million from four divisions of the National Institutes of Health, considered the world’s foremost biomedical research organization.
“These NIH grantees’ discoveries offer a classic example of how basic research driven by investigators’ curiosity can illuminate our understanding of health and disease,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, NIH director.
The achievement took nearly 30 years, beginning with Ms. Greider as a graduate student under Ms. Blackburn at the University of California at Berkeley. The two women identified the telomerase as the active enzyme at the tips of all chromosomes. The protective caps are called telomeres.
Ms. Blackburn discovered the DNA sequencing pattern of telomerase and, along with Mr. Szostak, a member of the American Chemical Society, showed how the repeated sequencing keeps the chromosomes from degrading.
In a 2008 speech, Ms. Blackburn made an analogy between telomeres and shoelace tips, saying both things keep the structure, either of a chromosome or a shoelace, from unraveling.
But if the telomeres are shortened, cells age, and, if they are lengthened, the aging effect is decreased.
“What has been so much fun working with telomerase is you are working in one area of biochemistry, and that led us to cancer research, and that led us to the aging field and that to degenerative disease,” Ms. Greider said at the end of a busy day during which she was roundly congratulated by Johns Hopkins officials and friends “with lots of food.”
“More than I would need,” she said.
The next step would be developing therapies for blood, skin and lung diseases based on the winners’ breakthroughs, Nobel Prize committee member Goran Hansson explained in a statement. Telomerase is active in many cancer cells, he noted, “and if you turn it off or destroy the cells which have a high activity, you could be able to treat cancer.”
Ms. Greider has joined a list of 33 Nobelists associated with Johns Hopkins institutions, and the 20th associated with the School of Medicine that she joined 12 years ago, long after she had done the research on which the prestigious awards were based. She holds the professor’s chair named for the late Daniel Nathans, who won the prize in 1978.
“She is a scientist, teacher, department chair, mom - really, a lady for all seasons,” said past Nobel winner Peter Agre from Hopkins’ School of Public Health at Monday’s press conference.
Dedication doubtless is the mother of invention. She made a prime discovery on Christmas Day in 1984, she said, when she went to her lab to check on the results of combinations of biochemical assays “to see what would elongate the telomerase.”
“We didn’t know any clinical implications, but clearly something interesting was going on,” she said.
Normally an early riser and member of an exercise class, she was notified of the Nobel Prize by a 5 a.m. telephone call from Sweden, followed by a call from Ms. Blackburn just as Ms. Greider was sending her colleague an e-mail about the prize.
“I was folding laundry at the time” of the call from the Nobel panel, she recalled. “It’s like the Monty Python sketch, ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.’ Nobody expects a call from Stockholm.”
Even with Ms. Greider and Ms. Blackburn, the 192 winners of the physiology-medicine prize have included only 10 women, though Ms. Greider indicated she isn’t discouraged by that low number.
“The number of women in science doing high-powered research is quite remarkable,” she said Monday, saying it would become more common to see others honored this way as more women head up independent research projects.