Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize in medicine for her discovery of Telomarese,the enzyme that replenishes the telomere (a protective structure at the end of chromosomes). Her work has huge implications for the study of cancer and human longevity. Extracts from a Walk the Talk interview with Shekhar Gupta,aired on NDTV 24×7 on February 16,2009.
•Shekhar Gupta: If stem cells,cloning,cancer research,molecular biology are considered the frontier areas of todays medical science,then my guest this week is its superstar. In fact,shes been called the queen of that business. Professor Elizabeth Blackburn,welcome to Walk The Talk.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Thank you. Im thrilled to be here.
•Shekhar Gupta: You have an added distinction,youve been fired by President Bush.
Elizabeth Blackburn: For just doing what I do,which is to say get the science right,get the science right. That wasnt a very popular attitude in the Commission or the Council that I was serving on as an advisor.
•Shekhar Gupta: The Commission on Bioethics.
Elizabeth Blackburn: The Presidents Council on Bioethics, a federal commission whose mandate is to advise on National Science policy. So I thought it was very important to get at least the science right,and then one makes decisions after that. So it was very interesting and I believe,quite characteristic of other aspects of this past administration,that there was this wish not to get the science right and that of course is very antithetical to how scientists feel.
•Shekhar Gupta: Of all the interesting possibilities we talk about,one is your own favourite enzyme Telomerase. Tell us more about it,because youve discovered this enzyme and looks like it controls everything in our life from disease to ageing.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Its certainly lying at the heart of decisions of cells whether theyll self-renew or not. I wouldnt be so grand and invite hubris to say its at the centre of everything but it does seem to be an important aspect.The essence of the problem is that our genetic material which is in chromosomes which are linear bodies,they have DNA,long DNA that makes up the chromosomes and the ends of the chromosomes have to be protected as they wear down through life as cells and our tissues renew.
•Shekhar Gupta: So thats ageing?
Elizabeth Blackburn: Its a sort of ageing,it does occur as cells and tissues renew throughout life but Telomerase,the enzyme,has the job of building them back up and the funny thing about humans is that for whatever evolutionary reason,were talking about Darwin,but Darwins evolutionary processes werent happening on the now more-ageing population. Now we live longer because weve overcome a lot of infectious diseases,things that used to kill people. So now we live longer and most societies now have many older people.
•Shekhar Gupta: Yet if I read some of the research right ,forgive me if Im wrong,if you get too much Telomerase that causes..
Elizabeth Blackburn: No,it doesnt cause cancer.
•Shekhar Gupta: That encourages cancer? What happens?
Elizabeth Blackburn: Youve read it right but the important thing is that in a normal cell in the body there isnt excess Telomerase but cancer cells,which have so many other things that have gone wrong,that make them just deaf to signals to stop multiplying,to stay where they should be. Cancer cells have had so many other things go wrong with them,genetic,non-genetic changes,that those cells,one of the things they then get selected for is that they have lots of Telomerase because now the telomeres in those cells get maintained. Thats when the high Telomerase is a menace because it does let the cancer cells multiply.
•Shekhar Gupta: And if we could control that,that could slow the growth of cancer tumours?
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes,and thats something thats being tested but theres no drugs out there yet.
•Shekhar Gupta: Thats what you are working on?
Elizabeth Blackburn: Were interested in that,among other things,but also very interested in non-cancer cells,the normal cells of the body which have such low amounts of Telomerase. And were very interested in that dangerous area of Telomerase where theres not quite enough sometimes,and this is just because its an accident of evolution . And so now the interesting question is if theres not quite enough we see consequences ,theres genetic evidence that that has consequences. So how can one make more? Thats what were trying to understand,what actually goes on in humans.
•Shekhar Gupta: And if you could make one more then you could slow down ageing?
Elizabeth Blackburn: I dont know,thats a big claim.
•Shekhar Gupta: Its a possibility.
Elizabeth Blackburn: It might affect certain aspects of ageing,there are so many different aspects of ageing. Ageing is so many different things and cells being able to self-renew is part of the picture but not all of it.
•Shekhar Gupta: Old age is more complex than youth..
Elizabeth Blackburn: Much more,and its more complicated than just tissue renewing but thats an important aspect of it. So we work on that aspect because it was actually by observing what happens in humans that you could see that theres this borderline limiting amount of Telomerase. But we dont think and claim that thats going to affect every part of ageing. Thats multi-faceted .
•Shekhar Gupta: You were one of seven siblings and reading about you Im fascinated that when you were working insane hours as an associate professor at Berkeley,you got pregnant and the same week they made you a full professor. Thats so inspirational for young women who want to work.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Well,thats just the way it worked. I wouldnt necessarily say to people that delay having your family. It just happened to be my life trajectory. But what was interesting was that I found out I was a full professor and then later that week that we would have our baby,and the two emboldened me to feel I could say to people Hey,I can have a family. You cant tell me I cant have a family which is a sort of social pressure that people will feel. And on the other hand,yeah,Im not sure how the other way round worked but..
•Shekhar Gupta: I think many women will find your words inspirational,even more than the entire scientific community. Its been wonderful having you on Walk the Talk. Keep coming back to India.