Thursday, October 08, 2009


On monday 5th Oct 2009, the Nobel assembly of the Swedish Karolinksi Institute, announced the recipients of this years nobel prize for medicine. The prize goes to Dr Elizabeth Blackburn of University of California at San Francisco, Dr Carol Greider of John Hopkin's and Dr Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School. The three will share the prize money. I watch the Nobel prize from two points of view. First, with some envy and wonder when we will see a Malaysian win a Nobel Prize ( even if it is to share ), and secondly, to see how the Swedish Karolinski Institute see what is important in medical advance.
This year, the Swedish Institute chose to emphasize cellular growth, the good and the bad. Too little cell growth will mean aging as cells are not replaced when they aged and die. Too much cell growth ( or growth out of control ) would mean cancers and their growth. Cancer afterall is uncontrolled cell growth. It is not exactly the opposite of aging, although they control system is about the same. The three Nobel Prize winners were working on the control mechanism for cellular growth. From what I read of their work, it appears that they have increase our understanding of how cells multiply and duplicate their genetic code. These of course all occurs at the chromosomal level.
I suppose all of us understand that the 46 chromosomes in our cells carry our genetic material, that says who we are. Their dependable duplication and replication of the chromosomes allow cells to divide and make exact copies. As we age, the chromosomes shorten, and the end of the chromosome is a segment labeled "telomeres ". The enzyme that controls the splitting off of the telomeres is called "telomerase". It would appear that the three Nobel Prize winners are masters in the understanding of the work of the telomerase enzyme.
I can understand that if the telomerase enzymes were too active, cells will age very quickly. The reverse is also troublesome. That if the telomerase enzymes are inactivated, then cells will just keep multiplying and promoted cancer formation. The cells will have no programmed aging. I can see the obvious application. Cancer has become a real medical problem, probably the commonest cause of death in the western world, now that cardiovascular death is coming under control. A very simple understanding would be that if we know more of the telomerase enzymes we can produce them in the laboratory and be able to cause cells to die, and so limiting cancers. Of course this is too simple, as that will almost certainly cause prematured aging. ( No wonder I did not win the Nobel Prize ). It gives us a way to approach the therapy for cancers.
Be that as it may, congratulations to Drs Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak. They have help us understand our body better and maybe their work will help us end the dreaded Cancer.

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