Shekhar Gupta: If stem cells,cloning,cancer research,molecular biology are considered the frontier areas of today’s medical science,then my guest this week is its superstar. In fact,she’s been called the queen of that business. Professor Elizabeth Blackburn,welcome to Walk The Talk.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Thankyou. I’m thrilled to be here.
Shekhar Gupta: You have an added distinction,you’ve been fired by President Bush.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes.
Shekhar Gupta: It’s a nice thing to have on your T-shirt,’I was fired by George W. Bush’.
Elizabeth Blackburn: For doing what I just do,which is to say “get the science right,get the science right”.. That’s my job as a scientist to do scince and tell my research team ‘make sure you get the science right,make sure you get the science right’. That wasn’t a very popular attitude in the Commission or the Council that I was serving on as an advisor.
Shekhar Gupta: Because people confuse faith with science.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Well,yes and I was serving on a commission whose mandate really was to..
Shekhar Gupta: The Commission on Bioethics
Elizabeth Blackburn: The President’s Council on Bioethics which is a federal commission whose mandate it is to advise on National Science policy,for national purposes. So I thought it was very important to get atleast the science right and then one makes decisions after that,once one has got the science right and 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 ofcourse is very antithetical to how scientists feel.
Shekhar Gupta: You know,we’ll bring you back to George W Bush and those 8 years..
Elizabeth Blackburn: Oh no please don’t!
Shekhar Gupta: No,we won’t bring back the years!
Elizabeth Blackburn: Oh I’m so happy to think in future terms now.
Shekhar Gupta: We won’t bring those years back,I think the people of America have made sure of that. But just in that background,how wonderful to be having this conversation,and that too in New Delhi in the gardens of National Institute of Immunology just when the world is celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birth anniversary.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes,so appropriate because you know what that brought was really a sort of freeing up of how you think about the natural world and intellectually it tapped into such a lot of scholarship that it freed people into thinking about things,which really has underpinned Biology.
Shekhar Gupta: That’s your world down to its smallest unit,the smallest..not just a cell but now an enzyme..
Elizabeth Blackburn: An enzyme or a group of enzymes carrying out a function within a cell.
Shekhar Gupta: Because you know it’s very interesting ..200 years since Darwin and yet the debate goes on because there’s still lots of people who believe in the theory of Intelligent Design that life is so complex that it couldn’t have happened just because of evolution. Why?
Elizabeth Blackburn: Well it’s an interesting mixture. I think it’s partly there’s certain social groups of people who feel very suspicious about science and its methods and would rather not deal with the fact that it’s sometimes more difficult to grasp ideas. And sometimes I think faith is almost,I understand it’s a human characteristic to want to have faith of various kinds but sometimes..
Shekhar Gupta: Are you religious?
Elizabeth Blackburn: Actually I find great wonder in nature and I see why people have interest in something,I hate to use the word spiritual but something like that,something beyond yourself. I think that’s very human and in my case I find the wonder is in nature but I don’t have any formal religious..
Shekhar Gupta: But scientists also go to church or to temples.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes but I think the kind of thing where someone uses faith as an intellectual laziness,I think that’s the thing where if somebody really really wanted to know how ..
Shekhar Gupta: Intellectual alibi
Elizabeth Blackburn: Alibi or just ..if you really wanted to know how things work you would try and think through really is whether Darwinism well-based on reasoned.. taking in all the evidence and looking at it all or not.
And I think those who reject it are not actually taking on that intellectual.argument.
Shekhar Gupta: Because many of Darwin’s critics would say that you guys also take Darwinism as a scripture.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Not at all. Every scientist just takes a theory as a working model,it’s just a framework in which you say ‘well does this go towards trying to find out the nature of things’ and in fact what people take seriously is the body of evidence that led Darwin to synthesise this sort of concept which ..
Shekhar Gupta: And nothing’s happened since then to contradict it,only to strengthen it.
Elizabeth Blackburn: No,the evidence from all sorts of different converging lines of evidence,from paleontology,geology..
Shekhar Gupta: The fossils and..
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes,observations of the way life does work now,or of the way the molecular signatures in DNA ..it all makes sense and when all the lines of evidence converge and say this synthesis is making sense,it seems foolish to try to say ‘Oh,it’s a religion’. It’s not,it’s a lot of lines of evidence.
Shekhar Gupta: Lots of young kids in India and around the world want to go to America and work in Biology.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes
Shekhar Gupta: Because in America you have labs like the wonderful lab where you work
Elizabeth Blackburn: And we have wonderful labs where we are too,in India.
Shekhar Gupta: Yes,University of California,and yet many of these Indian kids overseas are not conscious that one-third of the schools in America don’t teach evolution.
Elizabeth Blackburn: And so America’s hugely diverse and that’s the thing I think..
Shekhar Gupta: But why this,some surveys show that nearly 50 per cent of Americans refuse to accept evolution,which is why George Bush won twice. Is that only religion or something else?
Elizabeth Blackburn: I think it’s partly a failure of,as you said,a lot of the education isn’t as good as we would like to see,which is,you want to education to develop people’s minds so that they will think well and I think sometimes education systems can be a little lazy or a little less adequate . On the other hand,the range is very high and so there are many very good schools where people ofcourse think about this,they realise that science is not religion. Science is a process of thinking about how do things work and religion is about accepting faith and accepting authority.
Shekhar Gupta: And science has space for spiritualty and vice versa
Elizabeth Blackburn: I think they just deal with such different things because spirituality to me is a characteristic of human minds.
Shekhar Gupta: Science is about communism,let me ask in simplistic,George Bush terms.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Science is not communism but it is subversive in the sense that it’s not accepting authority and that’s very different from faith where authority is accepted. But I think in science you accept the best argument . I love working where I work ,at the University of California,San Francisco ,because our students,our post-doctoral fellows are very bright. You listen to the idea based on who has the idea.
Shekhar Gupta: And you’re so happy when a student or a scholar comes up with something that improves on what you’ve done or that contradicts what you believe . That’s achievement.
Elizabeth Blackburn: That’s the most wonderful thing,that’s an achievement and in science the idea is actually your hope is students are always better than you are . That’s what you most hope for. Your biggest joy is when they are exceeding you and you know this is what science is about whereas other sort of walks of life if you
Shekhar Gupta: In spirituality your expectation is one day your student will become as good as you.
Elizabeth Blackburn: No the highest religious official has,in any religion,has an authority because that person said it but that’s not the case in science. In science our student’s job is to undercut us as much as possible.
Shekhar Gupta: You know for someone with such subversive views,if I may put it like that,why did you accept that job on George Bush’s council? Because you knew there was a disconnect with this gang.
Elizabeth Blackburn: I knew. I thought that because I’m a scientist and I knew enough about the science and yet I wasn’t vested in exactly doing say,the stem cell research myself that I would defend it because I was too involved. I thought I could actually contribute to science policy by trying to be someone who’s able to interpret the science and assess it because I can do that,I’m a seasoned enough old hand that I can assess science pretty well. I’ve been around enough and I thought that’s really a contribution.
Shekhar Gupta: And it didn’t work
Elizabeth Blackburn: Well,what was interesting was that it didn’t work although funnily enough when I was discontinued from this Council the funny thing was that actually,if anything it sort of rebounded and made people more aware that the administration in other spheres had been suppressing scientific inquiry and climate change questions had been not taken seriously by the administration. Certain other reports like pollution involving arsenic and things like that ,had been changed around by the administration. So there was a pattern..
Shekhar Gupta: So it’s not as if they were in denial,it was more than that.
Elizabeth Blackburn: There was some active wish to sort of try to push and distort the information in ways that then interpretations of how you would act on it would be pushed in certain directions. ..there was a pattern,that’s what I saw in this Council.
Shekhar Gupta: And you were walking around with a whistle,whistle blowing?
Elizabeth Blackburn: Not at all,I was just doing what scientists do,I was just saying ‘if you’re going to write reports,get the science right’ ,get it right,present all the science,make sure all the science is out there because only then can you make an informed policy decision.
Shekhar Gupta: Will you take us back to some of those conversations that happened?
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes,I remember when we would talk about certain aspects of say,stem cell research,and I would say to the Council chair ‘Look I think this description of science,as I understand it,is not accurately reflecting what is known,what is not known ‘. I’ll give you an example,there was a wish to say if you could do research with adult stem cells,you could then achieve everything that embryonic stem cells could do and claims were made. And I would say ‘look I’m able to assess the claims for adult stem cells ,I see they don’t have the scientific weight that their claimers claim they have’ . You should be aware that scientifically they haven’t stood up to the kind of scrutiny. And so they should’ve been subjected to and conversely any claims about embryonic stem cells were sort of pushed in the other direction..
Shekhar Gupta: They’re as good as adult stem cells.
Elizabeth Blackburn: So those are examples that just because somebody has written a review about adult stem cells without putting the primary data in,that does not constitute a scientific body of evidence.
Shekhar Gupta: And science is all about questioning and peer review
Elizabeth Blackburn: And body of evidence that’s withstood peer review and hopefully,replication and..
Shekhar Gupta: The test of time and data
Elizabeth Blackburn: And thorough investigation
Shekhar Gupta: Did you have a conversation with George Bush on this ever?
Elizabeth Blackburn: The only time we met him was when he first appointed this group and the group was actually invited to the White House.
Shekhar Gupta: Because the George Bush administration and bioethics sounds like an oxymoron sometimes.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Well,he convened this group and wanted cloning to be dealt with and so it was a very curious thing because he said at one point ,he was reading from some little cue cards, and said ‘well,I want all different views ‘ and then he stopped reading from the cue cards and said ‘I think,all cloning is immoral ‘. All cloning,not just cloning from embryonic stem cells. We all worry about cloning for babies,because that’s crazy ,that’s so crazy dangerous. Look at what happened today ,the perfect example,that calf,that buffalo . You know what happens when they clone mammals and try to reproduce new babies from it,biologically all sorts of things go wrong . It’s well known it’s dangerous.
Shekhar Gupta: So what was the problem with this buffalo cloning,for example?
Elizabeth Blackburn: I don’t know about this specific buffalo for example but what happens is the genome information has to get reset for development and in cloning that’s difficult to do. But you can clone a stem cell line ,that’s totally different.
Shekhar Gupta: But cloning of mammals is dangerous,because we don’t know
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes we know a lot of things that go wrong ,but we don’t yet know how to fix them . We know it’s a highly unsuccessful procedure . It took 200 and some efforts to get one Dolly the sheep and so the failure rate is high and it often happens during gestation and birth that things go really severely wrong. Clearly it’s not something anybody would do with humans. That’s insane. But people mix that up with little stem cells which are just cells that are growing in the lab which aren’t people or babies or anything.
Shekhar Gupta: That’s a promising area of research
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes it is.
Shekhar Gupta: This is a very exciting time for scientists like you because Obama’s just come in and anytime now he’ll pass an executive order making federal funding available to all the areas of research you love,after 8 years of drought.
Elizabeth Blackburn: But even more,it’s an atmosphere that science is not the enemy of the state which is almost the view that you got with..
Shekhar Gupta: and faith
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes. Now it’s this thing that science is what progressive societies have been doing and and it can be useful for societal needs and it has a sort of intellectual honesty that I think is a good cultural sort of general attitude of minds. So it’s good.
Shekhar Gupta: So in this era of gloom and doom ,the only people who’re happy are maybe bio scientists.
Elizabeth Blackburn: No,I don’t think that’s true,you know when the election happened and all the economic gloom and doom was very clear ,it was very clear things were very bad . Didn’t you see on tv and everything the happiness on people’s faces and hundreds and thousands of people gathered in places when Obama was elected? The happiness that people showed..it was not just scientists.
Shekhar Gupta: That’s true,but today I’m saying in the specific sort of frame of policy changes.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes.
Shekhar Gupta: The one community,particularly in America,that’ll true benefit is the scientists,particularly biologists.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes,that’s right . Certain CEOs may not be really happy right now but scientists are because they think that..
Shekhar Gupta: That you’re getting liberated
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes,I think there is a feeling that science wasn’t getting support in Washington . Now Universities,research institutes,you know,science always bubbles up anyway so it isn’t as if all science had stopped but there certainly was a feeling
Shekhar Gupta: But we lost 8 years.
Elizabeth Blackburn: We certainly slowed things down on end and you know things didn’t happen in ways that things perhaps could have been and by choking off certain areas then you lose more because building things back up is actually much slower than you think.
Shekhar Gupta: But now we can reasonably look forward to some boom years in science? Biology more than..
Elizabeth Blackburn: I think so because Biology has advanced to the point where there are so many interesting possibilities and so this is the time where it would be crazy not to take advantage of that
Shekhar Gupta: I can see the joy on your face,this is the joy of liberation
Elizabeth Blackburn: Yes I think it’s a very exciting time and partly the science has liberated one’s thinking because there are so many interesting possibilities are here now so then if you can act ..
Shekhar Gupta: Of all the interesting possibilities we talk about,one is your own favourite enzyme Telomerase. Tell us more about it because you’ve discovered this enzyme and looks like it controls everything in our life from disease to ageing.
Elizabeth Blackburn: It’s certainly lying at the heart of decisions of cells whether they’ll self renew or not . I wouldn’t be so grand and invite hubris to say it’s at the centre of everything but it does seem to be an important aspect of
Shekhar Gupta: I only ask you to simplify this because I studied Biology 30 years back so you have to break it down for me and I’ll try and break it down for so many who watch this
Elizabeth Blackburn: 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 that’s ageing
Elizabeth Blackburn: It’s 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,we’re talking about Darwin,but Darwin’s evolutionary processes weren’t happening on the now more-ageing population. Now we live longer because we’ve overcome a lot of infectious diseases ,things that used to kill people. So now we live longer and most societies now have many many older people.
Shekhar Gupta: We discovered the bypass and stents and statins..
Elizabeth Blackburn: No,I think much more importantly we discovered public hygiene,control of infectious diseases,that’s when the life expectancy went way up and that happened quite a long time ago,that really big change and from then on it’s been incremental ,ever upwards but incremental.
So now people are expecting to live past their immediate early adulthood so now the time for the telomeres to wear down,telomeres are the ends of the chromosomes that wear down,Telomerase builds them up and for some reason evolution hasn’t provided us with a big excess.
We sort of have a borderline amount of Telomerase which will maintain and replenish the ends of chromosomes as they wear down throughout life. But it’s sort of dicey how much there is. And so that’s the interesting thing.
Shekhar Gupta: Yet if I read some of the research right ,forgive me if I’m wrong,if you get too much Telomerase that causes..
Elizabeth Blackburn: No,it doesn’t cause cancer.
Shekhar Gupta: That encourages cancer? What happens?
Elizabeth Blackburn: You’ve read it right but the important thing is that in a normal cell in the body there isn’t 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 in the body 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 . That’s 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 that’s something that’s being tested but there’s no drugs out there yet..
Shekhar Gupta: That’s what you are working on?
Elizabeth Blackburn: We’re 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 we’re very interested in that sort of dangerous area of Telomerase where there’s not quite enough sometimes and this is just because it’s an accident of evolution . And so now the interesting question is if there’s not quite enough we see consequences ,there’s genetic evidence that that has consequences. So how can one make more,and that’s what we’re 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 don’t know,that’s a big claim.
Shekhar Gupta: It’s 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 it’s more complicated than just tissue renewing but that’s an important aspect of it. So we work on that aspect because it was actually by observing what happens in humans could you see that there’s this borderline limiting amount of telomerase . But we don’t think and claim that that’s going to affect every part of ageing.
That’s multi-faceted .
Shekhar Gupta: Prof David Baltimore was on this show exactly a year ago. I think he came for the same lecture series that Cellpress brings to India and he said that ‘look,you guys are too impatient in hoping that bio technology or genetic research or stem cell research will fix cancer and HIV’. He said ‘ because cancer is not one disease but hundreds of diseases. Cancer,HIV happen because your immune system is under attack ‘ And vaccines work through the immune system. So it’s tough.
And yet we hope some day that biotechnology or biomedical science will do better than our immune system..
Elizabeth Blackburn: I think that we can use them to harness aspects of our immune system that are in place ,take advantage of the fact that our immune systems are so good at doing what they’re doing . But then as in certain drugs you learn how to exploit for medical good the body’s physiology that’s already there . So it’s a mixture of the two but I think ,absolutely ofcourse I agree you’re not going to have instant cures overnight because these are really complex disesess.
Shekhar Gupta: But something will happen?
Elizabeth Blackburn: For sure and sometimes you don’t know what will happen . I think that’s the main thing that people don’t often understand . Sometimes in Biology the things you find out that end up being very informative aren’t necessarily because you set out in a very targeted way to deal with them because we don’t know enough about them to know what’s important . Telomerase,I wasn’t looking to deal with ageing and cancer,I was
Shekhar Gupta: You know the most wonderful thing about scientific enquiry is the law of unintended consequences ,you don’t know what you may land up with.
Elizabeth Blackburn: That’s right and so having an open mind and learning what nature tells you and then trying to subject it to rigorous experimentation ,that’s the way science is often working . And so I think the impatience is if administrative or policy makers feel ,well they need to sort of see some tangible economic return right away, and I’m saying that actually that’s not possible but also just the process of finding all this out is actually very enriching. I think it’s like astronomy. It’s very interesting just to know how things work in the Universe and it’s not necessarily that useful yet . Right? Well,ofcourse it is for navigation and all
Shekhar Gupta: And scince is also about curiosity for the sake of curiosity.
Elizabeth Blackburn:And to me nature is very wondrous ,it’s very enriching to know how things work
Shekhar Gupta: It’s very interesting you say this because I was reading some of your interviews and there’s one place where you say that you always thought,you were brought up in Australia ,you always thought that medicine and science were different and your parents were both physicians and now you prefer to be addressed as professor rather than doctor.
Elizabeth Blackburn: You see this is so people won’t ask me medical questions to which I have no knowledgable answer to give.
Shekhar Gupta: And medicine and science are different although the consequence of one will be felt by the other.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Very much so and medicine what it really is about ,a physician’sjob is to try to act in a way that will produce some tangible benefit for their patient. That’s a very different decision from wehat the scientist has to do,which is to say I’d just really like to just understand..
Shekhar Gupta: I love this enzyme..
Elizabeth Blackburn: And I want to know how it works,you know,I really want to know how it works . It’s all very well for a physician to say ‘I’m really very curious about your tuberculosis ,I’m really curious and the person who’s got the tuberculosis is saying ‘I’d really be interested in having some help’ . You know the physician’s mandate is to help.
Shekhar Gupta: While you’ll focus on Telomerase.
Elizabeth Blackburn: I’m focused on that part of it because you have to be focused on something
Shekhar Gupta: You were one of seven siblings and reading about you I’m 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. That’s so inspirational for young women who want to work.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Well,that’s just the way it worked. I wouldn’t necessarily say to people that delay having your family . It just happened to be my life trajectory that that was the way it happened. But what was interesting was that I found out I was a full professor and then later that week that we would start our family,have our baby and the two emboldened,me to feel I could say to people ‘Hey,I can have a family. You can’t tell me I can’t have a family ‘ which is a sort of social pressure that people will feel and on the other hand ,yeah,I’m not sure how the other way round worked but..
Shekhar Gupta: I think the institute where we talk has a lot of women and I’m sure they will find your words even more inspirational than the entire scientific community. It’s been wonderful having you on Walk the talk and so inspirational. Keep coming back to India.
Elizabeth Blackburn: Please keep inviting me. It’s been wonderful talking to you .
Shekhar Gupta: And all the best for the boom years ahead of you in your business.