Scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine for ‘immortality enzyme’ and research on cell division

Immortality!

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nobel-prize-medicne-2009
Pictures of the winners of the Nobel Prize in medicine, from left, Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, are displayed on a screen at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (AFP)

Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) — Three American scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine for research on cell division and the “immortality enzyme” that can help cells multiply without damage, illuminating conditions including cancer and aging.

Elizabeth Blackburn, 60, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco; Carol Greider, 48, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore; and Jack Szostak, 56, a professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, will share the 10 million-Swedish kronor ($1.4 million) prize equally, the Nobel Assembly said today in Stockholm. It’s the first time two women have jointly won the prize.

Their research explored a fundamental question of life: how chromosomes that carry the genetic code in DNA are copied in their entirety each time a cell divides. The key is the end of the chromosome, where caps known as telomeres reside. An enzyme discovered by the researchers, dubbed telomerase, prevents the end from being shaved off and maintains the health of the cell as it replicates — earning it the title of “immortality enzyme.”

“This is this really a tribute to curiosity-driven basic science,” Greider said today at a press conference at the Johns Hopkins campus with her two children, ages 9 and 13, in the audience. “We were just interested in the fundamental question of cell biology.”

Merck, Geron Cancer Drugs

U.S. drugmaker Merck & Co. and Menlo Park, California- based biotechnology company Geron Corp. began testing a cancer vaccine that targets telomerase last year in patients with solid tumors, including lung and prostate cancer. Geron is also testing another telomerase inhibitor in breast and plasma cell cancer patients.

Diseases that have been linked to defects in telomerase activity include inherited forms of aplastic anemia, when the bone marrow doesn’t produce enough blood cells, and genetic forms of skin and lung ailments. The most intense research has been in cancer, where malignant cells have the ability to divide indefinitely, and in aging, which occurs in the cells when telomeres are shortened.

Greider, a former triathlete, said she was awake early this morning folding laundry and preparing for her bicycling spin class when she got the call from the chairman of the Nobel committee telling her she had 40 minutes before the announcement.

Christmas Day Discovery

Greider said the first realization of her discovery came on Dec. 25, 1984, when she came into the lab on Christmas day because she was anxious to find out the results of her experiment. She likened the group’s work in understanding the mechanics of cells to that of auto mechanics. It’s impossible to fix a car that isn’t working if you don’t know how the carburetor works, she said.

“That’s what happens inside cells,” Greider said in a telephone interview before taking her children to school. “When you have that fundamental understanding of how it works, when disease comes along you can understand what went wrong. Now we know both cancer and degenerative disease have major implications with telomerase.”

Female Laureates

Blackburn and Greider, a former graduate student in Blackburn’s laboratory at the University of California in Berkeley, join eight other female Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine, of the 192 individuals awarded the prize since 1901, according to the organization’s Web site. There have been 35 previous female Nobel laureates, starting with Marie Curie in 1903. Curie shared the prize in physics for work she did with her husband, Pierre Curie, on the radiation discovery of Antoine Henri Becquerel.

“There hasn’t ever been two women sharing the prize,” Greider said. “I think the number of women in science doing high-powered research is quite remarkable and the total number of Nobel prizes going to women has sort of lagged behind.”

Human genes are packed into chromosomes, which are capped by telomeres. Telomeres get shorter each time a cell divides — except in cells with the telomerase enzyme. When the caps get too short, the cell can’t divide anymore and dies. While the telomerase enzyme isn’t active in most human cells, which stop reproducing and eventually die, it has been found in cancer cells, the Nobel committee for the medicine prize said in a statement on its Web site.

Initial Discoveries

“They made the initial important discoveries in the early days of telomerase research and this choice is quite justified,” Joachim Lingner, professor and head of the Lingner Lab at the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, said in an interview. “Later, it was found that telomerase plays an important role in cancer, but they found the starting point for this theme of research.”

Telomerase is a reminder “that in studies of nature one can never predict when and where fundamental processes will be uncovered,” Blackburn and Greider wrote in a 1996 article in Scientific American. “You never know when a rock you find will turn out to be a gem.”

Blackburn was born in Hobart, Tasmania, in Australia, according to the Nobel committee. After undergraduate studies at the University of Melbourne, she received her doctorate degree in 1975 from the University of Cambridge in England, and was a researcher at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. She taught at the University of California in Berkeley, and since 1990 has been at the University of California in San Francisco.

Three Share Prize

Szostak was born in 1952 in London and grew up in Canada. He studied at McGill University in Montreal and at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he received his doctorate in 1977. He has been at Harvard Medical School since 1979 and is professor of genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Greider was born in San Diego. She studied at the University of California in Santa Barbara and in Berkeley, where she obtained her doctorate in 1987 with Blackburn as her supervisor. After postdoctoral research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, she was appointed professor in the department of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1997.

Blackburn, Szostak and Greider are all U.S. citizens.

Last Year’s Prize

Last year’s prize in medicine went to France’s Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier and German virologist Harald zur Hausen for identifying viruses that cause AIDS and cervical cancer.

Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. The Nobel Foundation was established in 1900 and the prizes were first handed out the following year.

An economics prize was created in 1969 in memory of Nobel by the Swedish central bank. Only the peace prize is awarded outside Sweden, by the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michelle Fay Cortez in London at mcortez@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: October 5, 2009 13:39 EDT
By Michelle Fay Cortez

Source: Bloomberg

2 thoughts on “Scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine for ‘immortality enzyme’ and research on cell division

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  2. Thanks indeed a lot, really, this is so increadibly important. Science and religion none of them can live alone, but through the research that has emerged over the last few decades, and the awakening aware consiousness, we finally can see the dawn of them both united but in compleetly new shapes and harmony.
    None cane live without the other. It is truely pure bliss to listen to you Bruce Lipton, thank you is only a tiny word, but from the bottom of my heart I reach out to you and my fellow human beings ” in the field” and hopefully we shall all meet in this field CONSIOUSLY . There is no authority above us, no authority under us, WE ARE OUR OVN AUTHORITY . Love and light to all:-)

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