December 12, 2011
UCSF Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD (left), whose co-discovery of an enzyme involved in cell aging and cancers opened a whole new field of scientific inquiry, was inducted into the California Hall of Fame on Dec. 8, 2011. Dr. Blackburn, the Morris Herztein Professor of Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF, addresses the audience after her induction ceremony on Dec. 8.
Resplendent in an elegant striped jacket of blue and green hues, Blackburn, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009, was presented with the medal by from Governor Jerry Brown. She was in eclectic company.
Her fellow inductees included astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the Beach Boys, the community activist Reverend Gregory Boyle, philanthropists and Gap store founders Doris and the late Donald Fisher, basketball legend Magic Johnson, the late disability rights advocate Ed Roberts, rock guitarist Carlos Santana, novelist Amy Tan, and the late California Supreme Court Justice Roger Traynor.
"This is quite a group of fellow Californians," said Blackburn, who was introduced by Aldrin, the pilot of the first manned lunar landing in history and the second person to set foot on the moon. "I greatly appreciate being recognized in the company of such creative, dynamic people. They exemplify the wonderful and varied talent of our state. It is a place like no other. When in California, there is a sense of the possible."
The Hall of Fame recognizes legendary Californians who have influenced the state, the nation and the world. It is part of the California Museum of Science, whose mission is to "engage, educate and enlighten people about California's rich history and its unique contribution to the world through ideas, innovation, art and culture."
While Magic was dazzling on the basketball court and the Beach Boys were inspiring with their melodies, Blackburn was studying a single-celled organism known as Tetrahymena, also known as pond scum. In 1985, she and her then post-doctoral fellow Carol Greider, PhD, a Nobel laureate, discovered that the organism was using a novel enzyme, which they named telomerase, to grow and shrink and then grow again.
The team determined that the enzyme adds tiny units of DNA to the tips of chromosomes, which are sealed by protective DNA caps known as telomeres. All humans have the telomerase enzyme in their cells, and scientists have learned that, in replenishing telomeres, the enzyme plays a key role in controlling cell aging and cancers.
The discovery led to a new understanding of cell biology and potential therapeutic targets. Today, major efforts are underway to reactivate telomerase to regenerate tissues associated with blindness, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases, and to deactivate telomerase to treat cancer, in which it is generally overactive.
In a newer arm of the research, Blackburn and UCSF's Elissa Epel, PhD, have discovered that chronic stress erodes telomere length, and that this measurement can serve as an indicator of the body's health, opening up yet another realm of investigation.
The telomerase/telomere discoveries have fueled collaborations across UCSF, California, the nation and the world. And they have inspired something of a following for Blackburn, a rock star in her own right.
Waiting near the red carpet at Thursday's event, emceed by journalist Lisa Ling and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, was a high school girl, decked out in a short, black, prom-like dress, holding a biology book. She was hoping Blackburn would sign it. Needless to say, she did.
Photos by John Decker Photography