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Elizabeth Blackburn ( 1948 - )  Category ( Nobel_Laureates ) [suggest a correction]

Elizabeth BlackburnScientists generally labor in anonymity, chasing their particular rainbows behind closed laboratory doors and white coats.

Even before Elizabeth Blackburn won a share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2009, however, she had already been dragged up on the international stage.

That occurred after the native Australian was appointed a member of the President's Council on Bioethics in 2001. It wasn't long before a schism developed between the Bush administration's opposition to human embryonic stem cell research and Blackburn's support of it. On Feb. 27, 2004, she was, in effect, fired from the council.

As might be expected, the reaction from the international scientific community was one of anger and disbelief.

Said Blackburn: "There is a growing sense that scientific research -- which, after all, is defined by trhe quest for truth -- is being manipulated for political ends. There is evidence that such manipulation is being achieved through the stacking of the membership of advisory bodies and through the delay and misrepresentation of their reports."

Ironically, Blackburn's core research had nothing to do with stem cells. As a key biological researcher and faculty member at the University of California-San Francisco, she helped discover telomase, an enzyme that naturally replaces the protective telomere structure at the end of chromosomes. For that, she shared the Nobel Prize with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak.

Blackburn was born in Hobart, Tasmania on Nov. 26, 1948, and graduated from the University of Melborne in 1970. From there, she earned a PhD from Cambridge and came to the United States in 1975 for postdoctural study in molecular and cellular biology at Yale.

After serving on the faculty of the University of California-Berkeley for 12 years, Blackburn then moved to UC-San Francisco in 1990.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Blackburn and colleagues in recent years have found telomere erosion in people who suffer chronic stress. They are now working on longer-term studies to see if lifestyle interventions will promote telomere repair, perhaps staving off illness. To pill-popping Baby Boomers, it's a revolutionary notion.

"'The idea is that wow, inside your cells, your molecular machinery is wearing down and this is not good," Blackburn said in her Tasmanian accent. 'If you can get a kind of science that is easier for people to grasp, a concrete measurement aspect, maybe this is the way to change policy.'"

Married to fellow biomedical researcher John Sedat (who still occupies the laboratory down the hall at UC-SF, Blackburn did much of her work while also juggling duties as a working mother.

Now, post-Nobel Prize glow, she is amused at the hype touting telomere research as a "fountain of youth."

"The goal should not be to live to 150 years old but to live well for 80 or 90 years," she told Chronicle science writer Katherine Seligman. "In an ideal world, people would protect their telomeres during the years they're normally susceptible to diseases of aging. Then they would 'fall off the perch' and die, as genetically programmed, at 90 or even 100 years old."

Blackburn has drawn praise for not hiding in her lab, but trying to connect her research to real world sociological problems.

"Most basic biologists like her stay very focused," said Elissa Epel, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at UCSF who has collaborated with Blackburn on studies of how stress affects the telomeres of women caring for chronically ill children and spouses with Alzheimer's disease. "They don't branch out into translational research in this way. It's risky to branch into fields you know little about."

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