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Nobel first for Aussie woman Elizabeth Blackburn
October 5, 2009
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October 06, 2009

MOLECULAR biologist Elizabeth Blackburn has become the first Australian woman to win a Nobel prize.

Professor Blackburn - whose pioneering work on telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, has opened up new lines of inquiry into growth, ageing and disease - is the 2009 Nobel laureate for physiology or medicine.

"Yes, I've won," said Professor Blackburn, 60, when The Australian contacted her in San Francisco just before the official announcement. "I can't talk now. I've got to speak to somebody in Sweden."

She is only the ninth woman to be awarded the physiology or medicine prize since its inception in 1909, and only the 36th female laureate in any category since 1901, when the first Nobel prizes were awarded in chemistry, physics, medicine and peace.

The Tasmanian-born professor's multi-disciplinary work on telomeres, stress-related disease and meditation has given tantalising evidence of the connection between mind and body.

She will share the 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.6 million) Nobel award with Carol Greider and Jack W. Szostak, the Nobel assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm announced last night.

Australians have won 10 Nobels, all but one for science and medicine, the exception being Patrick White's literature gong.

"I think it's fantastic to have another Australian laureate," said Robin Warren who shared the 2005 Nobel Prize with Barry Marshall for their discovery of the Heliocobacter pylori, the bacterium that causes gastritis and peptic ulcers.

Acting Science Minister Craig Emerson said Professor Blackburn's achievement would be an inspiration to women.

"The Rudd government is thrilled to hear Professor Blackburn has been named Australia's first female Nobel laureate and our 11th Nobel prize winner," said Dr Emerson, acting for Science Minister Kim Carr, who is overseas.

"Her achievement is an inspiration for all Australian scientists and those considering a career in science, especially for young women."

Professor Blackburn, who has dual Australian grew up in Tasmania, where she would sing to creatures that fascinated her, and took science degrees at the University of Melbourne. Since 1978, she has been based in the US.

She is Morris Herztein professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. Professor Greider, her former postgraduate student, is at Johns Hopkins University.

Professor Szostak is with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The trio was honoured for the discovery of how gene-bearing chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.

Professor Blackburn pioneered the work in 1984 when she and Professor Greider discovered telomerase, the enzyme that regulates the activity of telomeres.

"As the ends of the chromosomes wear down, the telomerase comes in and builds them back up," Professor Blackburn explained in a recent New York Times interview.

"In humans, the thing is that as we mature, our telomeres slowly wear down. So the question has always been: did that matter? Well, more and more, it seems like it matters.

"In my lab, we're finding that psychological stress actually ages cells, which can be seen when you measure the wearing down of the tips of the chromosomes, those telomeres."

The work has direct implication for the understanding of growth and ageing, as well as the effects of diseases like cancers, which are linked to uncontrolled cell replication.

Professor Blackburn last year received the L'Oreal-UNESCO award for women in science. She told The Australian that the prospects for women in the life sciences were much improved since her time - "but only up until the end of the PhD, graduate training and postdoctoral research period".

"Then the number of women in science careers drops off, indicating that the career options for women are not as well-matched for women as they are for men."

She said one practical remedy would be to provide "childcare and part-time career options for those years in which a woman's family involvements are particularly demanding, so women did not have to feel that the choice is between having a career in science or a family".

Her lab at UCSF is seen as female-friendly, partly because of her role as a mentor but also because of its inter-disciplinary approach, which embraces fields well beyond basic biology.

Professor Blackburn was famously appointed, then removed, from then US president George W. Bush's bioethics advisory council because she objected to the practice of having religion rather than science guide its work, especially in the field of embryonic stem cell research, which was tightly restricted by the Bush administration.

Professor Blackburn joins an elite group of 789 individuals and 20 organisations to receive a Nobel Prize.

King Carl XVI of Sweden will present Professor Blackburn with her award at a gala ceremony for all laureates in Stockholm on December 10.

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