Two women known for their groundbreaking work in molecular research were awarded the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research on Friday, the largest monetary prize for medicine in the country.
It marks the first time in the eight-year history of the prize that it’s been awarded to women scientists.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and Dr. Joan Steitz of Yale University won the prize for work with ribonucleic acid, or RNA — the cell’s messengers, which take a blueprint from DNA to help build protein.
Their research is expected to lead to more effective treatments of cancer, lupus and many other diseases.
Each plans to use her $250,000 in prize money to help women in science do research. They also hope it sends a message of hope and encouragement to women in science.
Blackburn, 59, is world renowned for her discoveries of telomeres, which are simple DNA sequences that are the “bookends at the end of chromosomes that hold everything in place.”
The telomeres protect cells from aging but also protect cancer cells from destruction.
Blackburn explained her fascination with the ends of chromosomes or telomeres: “We knew chromosomes carried genetic material and that the ends of chromosomes were protected by special means. But what did that mean? You have no clue. It was like you were trying to look at something from 4,000 miles up. You could see a speck on the Earth, but you had no idea that, if you honed in on it, it was a cat.”
When she began her investigation, little progress was made in understanding the properties at the end of chromosomes. Her research created a new field in molecular biology with implications for human disease and aging.
She worked in Dr. Joseph Gall’s laboratory in Cambridge, England, and there discovered telomeres’ properties and their functions as the “cap ends” of the chromosomes to protect cells from aging.
But over time, shortening of chromosomes that carry genetic information continually occurs and the telomere becomes too short and the cell dies.
Yet, Blackburn believed a not-yet-discovered enzyme would explain the unique DNA structure and her research confirmed the existence of the enzyme telomerase, which regulates the life span of cells.
She found that telomerase can “turn back the hands of the clock” by replenishing chromosomes and adding DNA back into their ends.
Blackburn’s team has recently found a link between low levels of telomerase and stress-related disorders like cardiovascular disease and obesity. The more telomerase someone has, the better.
She also discovered that the enzyme has a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” personality. While telomerase can help produce immune cells and fend off common diseases of aging, it can also make cancer cells live longer.
Blackburn is now exploring the potential role telomerase could play in cancer treatment and one of her current research goals is to see if telomerase can be inhibited to slow and possibly halt the spread of cancer.
“Her studies of this enzyme and its effect on cellular aging may hold the key to prolonged life by helping treat a variety of diseases from cancer to chronic stress,” said James J. Barba, president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center.
Steitz, 67, worked under the direction of Dr. James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, while at Harvard and said the most important thing she learned from him was his advice to her: “Don’t work on a problem unless you think it’s important.”
She’s carried his advice with her to this day and is best known for discovering small ribonucleoproteins, or snRNPs, which she and others nicknamed snurps.
These snurps remove introns — what Steitz calls “the segments of useless junk in the middle of our genes.”
Steitz showed that after getting rid of these introns, the snurps then glue back together the good parts of the gene, which allows proteins to form.
Understanding how this splicing occurs in the human body helps explain the formation of proteins in the human body and it may enable scientists to prevent a variety of human genetic diseases. It’s estimated that RNA splicing defects account for up to 15 percent of all these diseases.
“Many scientists believe that Dr. Steitz’s research may ultimately lead to breakthroughs in treating a variety of autoimmune diseases including lupus,” said Barba.
Steitz and Blackburn said the atmosphere has changed dramatically for women in science since they began their careers.
Steitz said when she started out she was pretty lonely, remembering that she was the only woman in a class of 10 to begin graduate studies in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard University.
“Things have changed now. It’s wonderful we have colleagues all over the country. It’s such a different atmosphere,” though Steitz said there are still barriers for women.
Blackburn said there’s a crucial point in biomedical and biological sciences. After the major period of training, which is many years of graduate, doctoral and postdoctoral research, women are well represented in research areas.
But, she said, as one goes to the next stages, in what’s considered desirable careers in research at institutions, the representation of women falls off. She said there are complex reasons for this, including women’s commitment to children and family. “What I would like to see is creative ways that stop that underrepresentation of women at that stage,” she said.
Steitz and Blackburn hope that by receiving the prestigious award — second only to the $1.4 million Nobel prize among medical prizes — that they will encourage young women considering careers in science and research.
They offered some advice during the award ceremony Friday at the Hilton Garden Inn:
“Go for it. Talk to lots of people about [it]. Don’t believe some simple myth that things are a simple way. The media are far behind about the realities of it,” said Blackburn. “Don’t let some preconceived view dictate why you think pursuing a science career may be too difficult.”
She said there are plenty of women who are successful in science with full lives that include family and children.
Steitz said women can get discouraged by little things that can build up and lead to self-doubt that they have the capacity for science.
“I think it’s only recently that I’ve really appreciated how challenged I felt being lonely at those early stages. I felt it was just the way it was with all those men. I realize how nicer and comfortable it feels when you are not the only female,” said Steitz.
The Albany Medical Center Prize was established by the late Morris “Marty” Silverman with a $50 million gift for a $500,000 annual prize each year for 100 years.
His intent was to recognize and reward excellence in science and to spur more of it and establish Albany Medical Center as an internationally known center for scientific and biomedical research.