It's not all play and no work for Nobel Laureates gathered in Stockholm this week. For $1.4 million dollars the Nobel Prize committee can ask for a lecture or two.
Telomeres (stained yellow) cap chromosomes (stained blue) .
Telomeres (stained yellow) cap chromosomes (stained blue) . UCLA
So today Carol Greider and the two other scientists with whom she shares this year's prize in physiology or medicine gave their obligatory Nobel Lecture. If you're interested in the history of the discovery of telomerase and its potential role in human disease, these are well worth watching. A bit technical, but you can always hit pause and look up words you don't know.
As I listened to Carol, I was reminded what a precise, no-nonsense thinker she is. Over the years, I've had occasion to consult her on plenty of stories. The most memorable time was back in 1998. A company called Geron had been trying to find a commercial product involving telomerase.
Normally, as cells age, the bits on the ends of their chromosomes get shorter. These bits are called telomeres. Telomerase keeps telomeres from shortening. Geron was hoping that by putting extra telomerase in cells, it would make them immortal, and thus reverse the aging process.
The paper describing the work appeared in January 16, 1998 edition of Science. I called Carol to see what she thought of the paper. She was only mildly impressed. Although Geron was speculating an anti-aging pill might be available within the decade, Carol thought that was highly unlikely. She didn't want to appear on air herself, but suggested I call Virginia Zakian at Princeton.
Zakian provided the appropriate caveat:
You don't know if the increase in telomere lengthening is really the reason the cells now have a longer life span. It's tempting to speculate [about a benefit from telomerase], but it could be that telomerese has another role and that this is just a coincidental accompaniment of its other function.
Geron got a lot of positive press from this story. Its stock price soared. But here we are in 2009, more than a decade later, and no anti-aging pill. Indeed, although Geron is still pursuing telomerase-based therapies, they seem to be out of the longevity business.
This year, NPR's Palca is covering the story of Carol Greider, one of the Nobel Prize laureates, who he has known for 17 years. See the first installment here.