A University of California at San Francisco microbiologist woke up to phone call at 2 a.m. Monday with the news that she has made history.
Microbiologist Elizabeth Blackburn, 60, is among three scientists awarded the prestigious Nobel prize in medicine and the fourth from UCSF awarded the prize. She will share the 2009 honor with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak.
"Prizes are always a nice thing," Blackburn told The AP. "It doesn't change the research per se, of course, but it's lovely to have the recognition and share it with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak."
The three won for discovering a key mechanism in the genetic operations of cells, an insight that has inspired new lines of research into cancer. They started working in the late 1970s and 1980s to solve the mystery of how chromosomes, the rod-like structures that carry DNA, protect themselves from degrading when cells divide.
Blackburn and Greider made history this year, becoming the first pair of women to win the prize for medicine.
It's not the first time Grieder and Blackburn have made huge strides in cell science together. In 1985, while Blackburn was a professor at UC Berkeley, she and then-graduate student Grieder discovered the enzyme that led to the latest breakthrough earning them the Nobel prize.
Blackburn, who holds U.S. and Australian citizenship, is a professor of biology and physiology at UCSF. She is working to harnesses parts of chromosomes to replenish them and make people healthier, especially those who suffer chronic stress.
"Dr. Blackburn’s research over the course of more than three decades has revolutionized scientists' understanding of the way in which cells function," said UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD. "Her generous spirit, curiosity and highly collaborative nature have led her to forge research partnerships that have significantly broadened scientists' capacity to understand the remarkable telomerase enzyme. As a scientist, a colleague, a mentor and a woman in science, she is an inspiration to the nation and the world."
Greider, 48, is a professor in the department of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. She got the call telling her she had won just before 5 a.m.
"It's really very thrilling, it's something you can't expect,"Grieder said. People might make predictions of who might win, but one never expects it, she said, adding that "It's like the Monty Python sketch, 'Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!'"
Blackburn joined UCSF in 1990. She is the fourth UCSF scientist to with the Nobel prize in medicine.
London-born Szostak, 56, has been at Harvard Medical School since 1979 and is currently professor of genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He is also affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The trio will be honored in a ceremony Dec. 10 in Stockholm. All three winners will split the $1.4 million dollar prize.