A double `American Nobel'

Baltimore researchers get prestigious Lasker Award for work on cell function and genetics

September 17, 2006|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,sun reporter

One Baltimore scientist has discovered what may be the key to aging and cancer's Achilles' heel. Another invented a technique universally used to pry loose the secrets of cells.

Now Carol Greider of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Joseph Gall of the Carnegie Institution at Homewood have been awarded the most prestigious prize in American medicine for their work - the Lasker Award.

Nicknamed the "American Nobel," each Albert Lasker Medical Research Award comes with a $100,000 honorarium. It's also considered a stepping-stone to science's most famous laurel: Seventy-one Lasker recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

This year's awards - five in all - were to be announced today by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, which started the prize in 1946. They will be handed out Friday at the Pierre Hotel in New York City.

Aaron Beck, 85, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, won this year's clinical prize for developing cognitive therapy. The technique, a form of "talk therapy," has transformed the treatment of depression, panic attacks, eating disorders and other psychiatric conditions, judges said.

Gall, who works at the Carnegie Instituttion's little-known department of embryology on San Martin Drive, will receive the Lasker for special achievement. The award, given out every other year, honors a lifetime body of work.

Unknown outside scientific circles, the soft-spoken 78-year-old Roland Park resident is revered within them: "He is one of the great cell biologists of our times," says Dr. Joseph Goldstein, a Nobel laureate at the University of Texas and chair of the Lasker jury.

In its citation, the jury praised Gall's numerous insights into how cells function - especially heredity-bearing chromosomes - and his invention of "in situ hybridization."

The technique, which allows scientists to pinpoint the locations of genetic material within cells, is used in labs around the world for studying growing embryos, diagnosing disease, and numerous other applications.

The award also honors Gall for being an early champion of women in science.

Greider, 45, will share the basic research award with two other scientists for co-discovering telomerase, an unusual substance that rebuilds the tips of chromosomes and ultimately determines the life span of cells. Twenty years after its discovery, it's one of the hottest areas in biomedicine.

"It has created a whole field unto itself," says Dr. Chi Van Dang, Hopkins medical school's vice dean for research. The main reason: Greider and others have since found that the substance plays a role in cancer and many age-related diseases.

Greider, who received word of the prize while sitting in her Roland Park kitchen one Saturday as she checked her e-mail, says the first thing to cross her mind was: "Is this real?" Then she raced over to her neighbor's house to tell her the good news - so excited that she overlooked the admonition about keeping the award secret.

"It's not something I even had on my radar," she says. "You do your science, and you don't think about prizes. We were really just trying to find out how chromosomes work."

`A Christmas present'

Greider's big break came on Christmas Day in 1984.

Back then, Greider was in her second year of graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, working in the lab of Elizabeth Blackburn.

Blackburn's specialty was chromosomes, the tightly coiled threads of DNA found inside cells that carry heredity information. Specifically, she was interested in their tips, mysterious regions known as telomeres.

"Nobody knew anything -zero - about DNA at the ends of chromosomes then," Blackburn says. But they had some guesses.

Scientists speculated that telomeres, like the plastic caps on the ends of shoelaces, protected chromosomes from damage when cells divided. More provocatively, a Russian researcher mused that telomere length might be related to how long a cell lives.

Because they were so tiny, these tips weren't easy to study, however. Humans have just 46 chromosomes, far too little material to work with. So Blackburn turned to a lowly single-celled pond dweller called Tetrahymena -"pond scum," she affectionately calls it. Tetrahymena boasts 20,000 chromosomes.

By the time Greider arrived, Blackburn had deciphered the genetic code of Tetrahymena's telomere, a first. The chromosome tips, she found, were composed of monotonously repetitive six-letter chemical sequences of DNA.

Blackburn and Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School had also conducted a series of ingenious experiments in Tetrahymena and baker's yeast suggesting that some unknown substance in the cells was altering the lengths of telomeres.

Greider was assigned to find it.

She spent months making pond scum cocktails: smashed up Tetrahymena cells mixed with radioactive markers and snippets of DNA that mimicked Tetrahymena telomeres. If the mysterious substance existed, it should stitch these DNA snippets together.

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