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A Triumph for Basic Science
A Lasker Award—a.k.a. the “American Nobel”—goes to one of our own

Lasker award winner Carol Greider unlocked mysteries of chromosome ends, now linked to disease. (Photo: Will Kirk)

Carol Greider has been honored with this year’s Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research for her discovery of telomerase, an enzyme that protects chromosome ends, or telomeres. Her breakthrough, made on Christmas Day 1984—when she was just 23—laid the foundation for studies showing that the enzyme plays a major role in cancer growth and aging.

The Lasker is the most coveted scientific research prize in America. Known as the “American Nobel,” it celebrates scientists whose accomplishments have triggered major medical advances. Since 1962, 71 awardees have gone on to win a Nobel Prize, most within two years of receiving a Lasker. Since 1945, when the first Laskers were given, 11 recipients have been associated with Johns Hopkins.

Greider, the Daniel Nathans Professor and Director of Molecular Biology and Genetics, shares the prize with Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California San Francisco and colleague Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School.

As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Greider became fascinated with how chromosomes are maintained in certain pond organisms. She and Blackburn tracked down the enzyme, named it telomerase, and showed that the biochemical reaction stops cells from progressively shortening. They also identified the molecular machinery behind it.

“We didn’t know of the medical relevance of the discovery. Almost 10 years later, our work showed that the enzyme plays a key role in cancer growth,” says Greider. “This award is a boost to basic, curiosity-driven science, an example of investing in people with clever ideas which might not seem directly applicable, but the utility becomes apparent later on.”

The news arrived when she least expected it. On a hot June Saturday, Greider sent her husband and children to a neighborhood pool while she waited for an electrician. Alone in her kitchen, Greider took advantage of the quiet to finish writing a grant.

Suddenly an e-mail notification popped up on her screen: “Congratulations!” Greider might have deleted it as suspected spam had she not noticed that the sender was chairman of the Lasker Awards jury.

“I had no idea I was even nominated,” Greider says. When the family came home, they bombarded Greider with stories about their outing. Fifteen long minutes later, Greider interjected: “I have something to tell you ….”

—Judy Minkove

 

 

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