* 3 Americans win prize for discovery of telomerase enzyme
* Blackburn, Szostak, Greider shed light on aging process
* Institute says work solved a major problem in biology
(Adds Szostak quotes, detail)
By Nicholas Vinocur
STOCKHOLM, Oct 5 Three Americans won the Nobel
prize for medicine on Monday for revealing the existence and
nature of telomerase, an enzyme that helps prevent the fraying
of chromosomes that underlies aging and cancer.
Australian-born Elizabeth Blackburn, British-born Jack
Szostak and Carol Greider won the prize of 10 million Swedish
crowns ($1.42 million), Sweden's Karolinska Institute said.
"The discoveries ... have added a new dimension to our
understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms,
and stimulated the development of potential new therapies," it
The trio's work laid the foundation for understanding how
telomerase and telomeres -- the small caps on the end of
chromosomes that carry the DNA -- affect cancer and age-related
Work on the enzyme has become a hot area of drug research,
particularly in cancer, as it is thought to play a key role in
allowing tumor cells to reproduce out of control.
One example, a so-called therapeutic vaccine that targets
telomerase, in trials since last year by drug and biotech firms
Merck (MRK.N) and Geron (GERN.O), could yield a treatment for
patients with tumors including lung and prostate cancer.
"Their research on chromosomes helped lay the foundations
of future work on cancer, stem cells and even human aging,
areas that continue to be of huge importance," said Sir Leszek
Borysiewicz, chief executive of Britain's Medical Research
"FOLLOW YOUR NOSE"
Blackburn, a molecular biologist and biochemist at the
University of California San Francisco known for her work on
DNA and cell division, said she had not stayed awake waiting
for a call from the Nobel Prize Committee, even though her name
topped many Nobel prediction lists.
"I was surprised. It is always a surprise when something
like this happens," she told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"I was woken up and (it) took me a while to take it in."
She said she had been in southern California the previous
day for her mother-in-law's 95th birthday. "The phone rang and
I sort of groped around in the dark for it," she said.
An outspoken researcher, Blackburn was fired in 2004 from
President George W. Bush's Council on Bioethics in what many
scientists believed was her criticism of his policy on human
embryonic stem cell research.
She said she knew that something like telomerase must exist
from working with Szostak on telomeres, which help keep the
ends of chromosomes together.
"Carol and I hunted it down," she said. "We didn't stumble
over it. The molecular behavior of the ends of the chromosomes
was screaming out that there was something going on, some
hitherto unknown enzyme."
Greider, 48, who grew up in Davis, California, where her
father was a physicist, said winning the Nobel prize was
especially significant because it recognized the value of
discoveries driven by pure curiosity.
"We had no idea when we started this work that telomerase
would be involved in cancer, but were simply curious about how
chromosomes stayed intact," she said in a statement.
"Our approach shows that while you can do research that
tries to answer specific questions about a disease, you can
also just follow your nose."
PAYING FOR COLLEGE
Greider, now at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in
Baltimore, started research on telomerase in the late 1970s
with Blackburn, her academic adviser.
Szostak, 56, also said he started on the work without
knowing what if any practical benefit it would bring.
"Eventually its role in aging and cancer emerged from the
work," he said.
Asked what he planned to do with the prize money, Szostak
said he would be putting his children through college.
Dr. Jeremy Berg of the U.S. National Institute of General
Medical Sciences, which funded some of the research, said this
year's prize was not a surprise.
"It was at the top of all lists this year," Berg said in a
Berg said Szostak, who works at Harvard Medical School in
Boston, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Howard Hughes
Medical Institute, had moved along since his work on
"He is trying to figure out how he can make proto-cells and
get them to copy their genetic material. That's almost
literally creating life in a test tube."
All three new Nobel laureates were among those considered
likely winners in a Thomson Reuters forecast.
Medicine is traditionally the first of the Nobel prizes
awarded each year. The prizes for achievement in science,
literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 accordance with
the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.
(Additional Reporting by Mia Shanley, Scott Malone, Peter
Henderson and Ben Hirschler, editing by Maggie Fox and Chris