SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Nobel-winning medical science that points the way to a cancer cure was sparked by curiosity, not business sense, a new laureate said on Monday.
Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel prize for medicine together with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for work on the existence and nature of telomerase, an enzyme that helps prevent the fraying of chromosomes and is core to new work on aging and cancer.
Federal research grants made the work possible, and that money is becoming more important as the California public education system which nurtured the science struggles with budget cuts that will probably reduce the wages of Blackburn and her colleagues.
Now a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, Blackburn’s federal grant application had proposed understanding how the ends of the chromosomes worked.
“I was just following my nose,” she told a news conference after the announcement of her prize by the Nobel committee in Stockholm. “That would look pretty bad in a business plan,” she said, noting that basic research is long and costly.
Blackburn’s work in the field dates to the late 1970s, and about three decades later a therapy based on the enzyme is in trials by biotech firms Merck and Geron.
Now the University of California system is chopping salaries and raising the fees that have made it unusually affordable, raising questions over whether Blackburn and her colleagues will face wage cuts for future research.
“Get a Nobel prize, have a pay cut,” quipped Blackburn. “It sort of breaks my heart to see it being under attack.”
NO QUICK PROFIT
Blackburn’s San Francisco lab on Monday was filled with fluorescent proteins, cleansing solutions and young scientists asking basic questions that may not cure anything soon, but could be the first step to a drug years away from development.
Her research has federal backing and President Barack Obama last week earmarked $5 billion from recent stimulus funding for medical research that might not “lend itself to quick profit.”
So Blackburn’s lab is still full of “crazy” questions, in the words of doctoral student Beth Cimini, 23, who was filling a syringe with a blue liquid. The work is part of a plan to put fluorescent “tags” on a protein and see how it reacts with telomeres, as the ends of the chromosomes are called.
“I went to Liz and said ... ‘It might be wacky, but can we try it’?” said Cimini, who added that results suggest her hunch may not be “entirely crazy.”
Closer ties between academia and corporations on basic research might provide a way forward in the future.
“The old paradigm needs to be revamped,” said Sam Hawgood, dean of the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, who says star researchers may be able to attract corporate backing even for basic science.
Blackburn may turn to a new source of funding -- herself. Her share of the prize money -- one third of 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.42 million) -- may go for seed funds for new ideas too small to merit writing a grant, she said.
Reporting by Peter Henderson; editing by Chris Wilson
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