How Blackburn Helped Unravel the Mysteries of the Telomere: Nobel Laureate’s Work Expands Understanding of Cancer Mechanisms

Published Online: Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD, from University fo California, San Francisco

Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD

Nobel laureate Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD, who received the Nobel Prize in 2009 for the discovery of how telomeres (the ends of chromosomes in eukaryotic cells) are protected by the enzyme telomerase, has contributed immensely to the understanding of cancer biology, and in particular, telomere biology.

An Early Passion for Science

Science and medicine are certainly in Blackburn’s blood. Her parents were family physicians, and her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were both geologists. Regarding her parents, Blackburn writes in her Nobel biography, “From them, I imbibed a sense of the importance of serving people kindly and as well as one can.

I continue to believe that bioethics, done well and underpinned by the best available scientific evidence, can be an important part of our consideration, as a society, of the impact on people of scientific research in the biological sciences and medicine.” Born in 1948 in Tasmania, Australia, Blackburn spent her early years developing her love for biology. She recalls, “Perhaps arising from a fascination with animals, biology seemed the most interesting of sciences to me as a child. I was captivated by both the visual impact of science through science books written for young people, and an idea of the romance and nobility of the scientific quest…By the time I was in my late teens, it was clear to me that I wanted to do science.” Blackburn attended a girls’ school for much of her childhood, where several schoolteachers had a profound impact on her interest in science.

She recalls, “Growing up, three of my schoolteachers in particular encouraged my interest in biology and chemistry and mathematics, not least by letting me know that they believed in my abilities to succeed in these areas—Nan Hughes, Jenny Phipps, and Len Stuttard.”

Blackburn then attended the University of Melbourne, Australia, from which she graduated in 1970 with an honors degree in biochemistry.

Dr. Lawrence H. Einhorn Career Highlights

She completed her master’s degree in 1972, studying the metabolism of glutamine in the rat liver before beginning her coursework and research for her doctorate from the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge, England, under Frederick Sanger, PhD. While at Cambridge, Blackburn carried out sequencing of regions of bacteriophage phiX 174, a small single-stranded DNA bacteriophage, and graduated with her PhD in 1975.

Balancing Family and Work

After receiving her doctoral degree, Blackburn traveled across the ocean to the United States, where she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University under Joseph G. Gall, PhD, attempting to sequence DNA found at the terminal regions of “minichromosomes” in the ciliated protozoan Tetrahymena thermophila.

After finishing her postdoctoral research in 1977, Blackburn and her husband, John W. Sedat, PhD, moved to San Francisco, California, where she accepted a research track position in the Department of Biochemistry at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), during which she studied Tetrahymena telomeres.

In 1978, only months after starting at UCSF, Blackburn was offered and accepted an assistant professor position at University of California (UC), Berkeley, where she readily moved her still-new research laboratory.

In 1986, Blackburn was promoted to full professor at UC Berkeley, the same year that her son, Benjamin, was born. In order to balance her family and work time, Blackburn made the difficult decision in 1993 to move her laboratory back to UCSF and become part of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. It is there that Blackburn has remained ever since.

Today, Blackburn still credits her family with helping her achieve success and delve deeper into her scientific inquiry. “My husband, himself an accomplished scientist, has always urged me to dig deeper into myself and find the reserves of strength I might not have tapped— his encouragement, in this way, has helped me through years of doing science. Our son, Ben, inspired me to try to find ways of combining family and science, something that I have tried to convey to young scientists making their careers,” Blackburn writes.

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