Americans Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak on Monday won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering a key mechanism in the genetic operations of cells, an insight that has inspired new lines of research into cancer.
It was the first time two women have been among the winners of the Prize. The trio solved the mystery of how chromosomes, the rod-like structures that carry DNA, protect themselves from degrading when cells divide. The Nobel citation said the laureates found the solution in the ends of the chromosomes — features called telomeres that are often compared to the plastic tips at the end of shoe laces that keep those laces from unravelling.
Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Greider discovered the enzyme that builds telomeres — telomerase — and the mechanism by which it adds DNA to the tips of chromosomes to replace genetic material that has eroded away.
The prize-winners’ work, done in the late 1970s and 1980s, set the stage for research suggesting that cancer cells use telomerase to sustain their uncontrolled growth