Emory Report
November 2, 2009
Volume 62, Number 9

2009 Nobel Prize
has more ripple
effects at Emory

Visit Emory Report’s eScienceCommons blog
to see how the economics prize winner shaped environmental studies professor Tracy Yandle’s work; and the Emory Health Now blog for how the Nobel Prize in Medicine trios’ work relates to several lines of research at Emory.

Emory Report homepage  

November 2, 2009
Learning basic truths from Nobel Laureates

Hinh Ly is assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine. Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Christine Dunham contributed to this essay.

The 2009 Nobel Prize announcements undoubtedly stirred up a lot of emotion in the winners; it also brought a lot of excitement for some us here at Emory University who had the pleasure to work with some of these newly minted Nobel Laureates.

Prior to joining Emory as an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, I was a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California at San Francisco, who was named the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology (a joint honor, along with Carol Greider at Johns Hopkins University and Jack Szostak of Massachusetts General Hospital). I worked also with Tristram Parslow, now William Patterson Timmie Professor and Chair of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at Emory.

My colleague Christine Dunham, who has recently joined the rank of assistant professor in the biochemistry department here at Emory, was a postdoctoral trainee in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) working with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (along with Thomas Steitz at Yale University and Ada Yonath at the Weizmann Institute of Science).

Of course, we are not the only Emory connections to some of the past Nobelists. Among them: Bill Kelly, an associate professor of biology, was a former trainee of Andrew Fire, the 2006 Nobelist in Medicine; and Daniel Kalman, an associate professor of pathology was a former trainee of Michael Bishop, who won the 1989 Nobel Prize in Medicine. This speaks volume to Emory’s ability and success in the recruitment and retention of top-notched scientists, who were trained with luminary scientific leaders in the world.

What’s even more exciting is the fact that these recent Nobel Prizes have been awarded for basic scientific inquiries that at the time of discovery do not necessarily have a clear and immediate medical benefit. As Dr. Blackburn has recently commented: “The most exciting part about basic research is that you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

Dr. Blackburn won the award for her groundbreaking work in the discovery of telomeres, which are DNA-protein structures that cap and protect our chromosomes. One can think of these structures as aglets at the tips of shoelaces; the loss of these plastic caps can result in fraying of the tips of the shoe laces and render them unsightly and useless. Similarly, when telomere structure and function are disrupted on human chromosomes, various forms of diseases, such as premature aging syndromes and cancers, can develop.

My laboratory here at Emory was among the first to show that this could happen in patients with a severe and sometimes fatal form of bone marrow syndrome known as aplastic anemia. Because of premature death of blood stem cells as a result of telomere dysfunction, these patients are more prone to infection, bleeding episodes, cancers and death due to marrow failure syndromes. Except for marrow stem-cell transplantation, there are currently no other effective forms of treatment for these patients. Work done in my lab is offering important insights into the role of telomere biology in human diseases and hope for patients who are suffering from these debilitating diseases with telomere dysfunction.

Dr. Ramakrishnan’s work on deciphering the atomic structure of the protein translation machinery in the cell paved the way for understanding how antibiotics render this molecule inactive and ultimately result in cell death. Both the telomerase Nobel and this ribosome Nobel touch upon the importance of funding basic science.

At the time when both projects were initially being studied, there didn’t appear to be any obvious medical relevance. However it has become increasingly apparent that if scientists focus
on understanding important fundamental cellular mech-anisms, there’s bound to be some sort of medical relevance at some later stage.

And if it is unknown how basic cellular processes occur, how can one understand when they are perturbed as in disease states? Dr. Ramakrishnan commented on this conundrum: “The idea of supporting long-term basic research like that at LMB does lead to breakthroughs, the ribosome is already starting to show its medical importance.’’

It is important to note that many of the recent Nobelists have made other important contributions to the society at large. Dr. Blackburn, for example, is well known for her unwavering desire to promote work-life balance in one’s career, to increase the number of women in science, and to champion for stem cell research and funding. She shared her Nobel Prize with Carol Greider, who was at the time of the seminal discovery a young female graduate student in the Blackburn lab at the University of California at Berkeley.

Dr. Blackburn has continued to promote and nurture budding scientists, many of whom have prospered in their own careers as faculty members and scientific investigators at many premier research and teaching institutions throughout the world. It is a testament to her success in building a thriving scientific enterprise based purely on basic research, and for her wonderful character as a mentor, teacher, collaborator and friend, and not to forget, the role model for many bud-ding scientists in the world.