Schenectady County

Female researchers share annual Albany Medical Center award

A doctor whose molecular research has improved treatments for a variety of diseases and another whos
Joan Steitz of Yale University, left, and Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California-San Francisco talk at a news conference Friday morning at the Hilton Garden Inn at Albany Medical Center after being named the first female recipients of the Alb
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Joan Steitz of Yale University, left, and Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California-San Francisco talk at a news conference Friday morning at the Hilton Garden Inn at Albany Medical Center after being named the first female recipients of the Alb

A doctor whose molecular research has improved treatments for a variety of diseases and another whose work may lead to breakthroughs in degenerative and other age-related disorders, were awarded the nation’s richest prize in medicine and biomedical research today.

Joan Steitz and Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn are the first women ever to receive the eight-year-old Albany Medical Center Prize, at $500,000 second only to the $1.4 million Nobel Prize among medical prizes. The award was presented Friday.

Both were honored for their research into ribonucleic acid, or RNA — which works with protein to execute the blue print instructions in cells.

Steitz, Sterling professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, is known for a breakthrough she made between 1979 and 1980 that improved the diagnosis and treatment of certain autoimmune diseases, including lupus, scleroderma and some forms of arthritis.

She discovered the function of small ribonucleoproteins — or snRNPs. Their job is to spot and remove numerous useless segments in RNA, and then splice what’s left back together to create messenger RNA, which creates critical proteins for the body’s most basic biological processes.

“It’s like pruning the deadwood out of a tree and grafting back together the good bits so that it can flourish and live,” Steitz said.

The discovery is useful in modern medicine because symptoms can be connected to specific problems, allowing a more specific diagnosis and treatment, Steitz said.

“For every second, every cell in your body is making proteins, and it has to be able to carry out this splicing reaction,” Dr. Carol Greider, a professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, said of Steitz’ discovery.

Blackburn, the Morris Herzstein professor of biology and physiology at University of California, San Francisco, made groundbreaking discoveries about the molecular nature of telomeres.

Telomeres are like the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces — they’re simple DNA sequences at either end that hold chromosomes together to keep them from fraying.

Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase, which repairs telomeres — when the ends of the shoelace start to wear down and threaten to unravel. She says that telomeres carry key genetic information, but they naturally shorten over time until the cell dies.

She found that telomerase can essentially turn back time in cells, repairing the chromosomes by adding DNA back into their ends. Blackburn said there is a direct correlation between how much telomerase people have and the likelihood they will suffer from cardiovascular problems: The more telomerase the better. Chronic stress correlates with having a lower level of the enzyme.

But telomerase can also contribute to the growth of cancer cells, a discovery that could eventually help in the treatment of some cancers, said Dr. James Barba, president and CEO of Albany Medical Center.

“It’s a very nice story about how basic fundamental research of understanding what happens in cells can then later lead to potential medical applications that are quite relevant,” Greider said. “When you find something fundamental about cells, then you can find out later how it goes wrong.”

Steitz and Blackburn noted the importance of women in science and how far they have come.

“We were pretty lonely,” Steitz said. “I remember sitting on the committees for years where I was the only woman, and things have changed now.”

Neither have decided how they will spend their prize money, which they’ll split, but they both have the same general goal.

“I do want it to be something that will help women in science to do research,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn earned her undergraduate and masters degrees from the University of Melbourne in Australia, and her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in England. She did postdoctoral work in molecular and cellular biology at Yale and later worked at the University of California, Berkeley in the department of molecular biology.

Steitz was a graduate student at Harvard, eventually earning her Ph.D. in 1967. She completed postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council Lab of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. Then she joined the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale.

The Albany prize was established in 2000 with a $50 million gift from the late Morris “Marty” Silverman, a New York City businessman who wanted to encourage health and biomedical research.

Past recipients of the prize include Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer, whose research discovering gene cloning paved the way for the modern biotechnology industry, and Anthony Fauci, who was recognized in 2002 for his seminal work on AIDS and other diseases of the immune system.

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