For the first time since its inception, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research was awarded to two women (Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and Dr. Joan Steitz of Yale University). Worth $500,000, the Albany Medical Center Prize is one of the largest financial prizes for medical research in the United States. The size of the award is second only to the Nobel Prize ($1.4million).
Dr. Blackburn’s research focuses on telomeres, the ends of chromosomes. These special “caps” help maintain chromosome size as cells divide, and prevent chromosome shortening which is associated with aging. Importantly, they also are key to the longevity of cancer cells, so a deeper understanding of their biology may lead to new ways to treat cancer. The enzyme activity that maintains telomeres is called “telomerase.” Dr. Steitz discovered snRNPs (called “snurps”), which are small pieces of RNA that help splice introns (intervening sequences) out of our genes. Telomerase and snRNPs are fascinating because they are both examples of enzymes composed of RNA (most enzymes are proteins). RNA is thought by many evolutionary biologists to be the first large molecule in the development of life, because it can both carry genetic information AND function as an enzyme.
Congratulations to Drs. Steitz and Blackburn for this terrific award!