Helen Blackburn, Ph.D.
California Scientist of the Year 1999
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University of California at San Francisco
Microbiology and Immunology
research interest: Molecular biology
Blackburn was the first person to study telomeres, which
can be found at both ends of each chromosome in all living
things. Chromosomes are the elements in living cells that
carry our genetic code, and telomeres help to protect
the chromosomes. During her study of telomeres, Dr. Blackburn
discovered telomerase, the enzyme that manufactures telomeres.
Telomerase has been linked to the biological clock that
determines the life span of cells. When telomerase isn't
around, cells stop making copies of themselves, and then
they get old and die and are replaced by new cells. Normal
body cells usually don't make telomerase, so they don't
reproduce when they are old. But cancerous cells often
make more telomerase than non-cancerous cells, helping
the cancerous cells to live longer and reproduce more.
So finding compounds that inhibit telomerase may help
in the treatment of cancer. Lloyd H. Smith, the Associate
Dean of The University of California at San Francisco's
School of Medicine, said this about Dr. Blackburn: "Her
contributions created a whole new field in molecular biology--the
molecular description of telomeres--that has had an outstanding
implication for both disease and aging."
Blackburn's Lab Site: