UCSF doctor one of Nobel winners

October 5, 2009 5:31:48 PM PDT
Three Americans won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday and one of them a renowned scientist here in the Bay Area -- at UCSF. Today, she became one of only 10 women ever to win this coveted prize. She is doing research that could offer insight into aging.

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Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn is a professor of biology and physiology at UCSF, but the award winning research actually dates back to when she was teaching at UC Berkeley and one of the people she's sharing the prize with was one of her students.

Researchers at UCSF poured out of their labs, to greet Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, after word the 60-year-old biologist had won the Nobel Prize for medicine.

"I got a call at 2:00 a.m. The person identified as Nobel Prize committee and I thought it can't be true," she said.

Blackburn won for her part helping unlock the secrets of how human cells age and how an enzyme called telomerase helps control the process. The discovery has sparked hope that science may someday use the process to treat age related diseases.

"I don't think clocks will be turned back, but it's a question of whether we can expand out health life, long years of health," said Blackburn, PhD.

Blackburn shares the prize with two other scientists and one of them is also a woman. It marks the first time two women have shared in a single Nobel Prize in medicine.

Blackburn says she became inspired to pursue her career after reading a biography of Nobel Prize winning chemist Marie Curie while growing up in Australia.

"I think that made quite an impression on me as a preteen," she said.

"It gives young women a role model, something to aspire to. I think its terrific for women," said UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellman.

Blackburn will get a third of the $1.4 million prize money. But in an ironic twist, she it comes as she'll will be receiving a pay cut, as part of cost saving measures at the University of California.

Perhaps to compensate for those cuts, she plans to put some of the prize money to work in her lab.

In related research, Doctor Blackburn also showed that telomerase plays a role in the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells. That work is now being used to develop potential cancer fighting treatments.

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