RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Let's hear more now about this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. In Stockholm this morning, the Nobel committee announced the winners. Three American scientists will share the prize.
NPR's science correspondent John Hamilton is here to tell us about them.
JOHN HAMILTON: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: And who won?
HAMILTON: Well, first up, we've got Elizabeth Blackburn, who was born in Australia and got here Ph.D. in England, but now she is a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco.
Then we've got Carol Grieder. She spent a lot of her early life in California. Now she is a professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. And then finally, we've got Jack Szostak. He was born in London, grew up in Canada, but he is now a professor of genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
MONTAGNE: And what did they do that earned them this prize?
HAMILTON: Well, all three of these scientists made important contributions to our understanding of these things called telomeres. And telomeres, if you imagine our DNA as like a strand, a shoelace strands. You know, these DNA strands are like shoelaces. Telomeres would be sort of like the little plastic tip, the little plastic cap at the end of our shoelaces that keeps them from unraveling. And, in fact, that's - to a certain extent that's what they do.
What happens is when cells divide, you would ordinarily lose a little tiny bit of the end of the DNA strand, and telomeres seem to prevent that from happening. So they're obviously pretty important.
MONTAGNE: And, okay. So far so good, I'm getting it there, of that point, John. But, you know, why is it so important? What can you do now that you know that it's telomeres doing this - keeping these strands from unraveling?
HAMILTON: Well, there are at least two really important reasons to understand telomeres, and one of them has to with aging. If these telomeres are in fact controlling the sort of aging process of the cells, then mean that's what we do. We are living creatures and our cells age. The telomeres get shorter. They know that when telomeres get shorter that causes aging.
They used to thing that they were really the key to all cell aging, and I think now they're realizing it's a more complicated picture, but they're very important. So the first thing is you study telomeres and the way they protect the DNA from getting lost when copies are made. And, you know, our cells are dividing making copies all the time. And if you understand that, then you would hope that you would understand why we're aging and maybe be able to affect it.
MONTAGNE: You know, which gets us to the sort of the - a lot of these interesting that would you call discoveries - have practical implications. What would the one for telomeres be? I mean to prevent aging in what way?
HAMILTON: Well, you might be able to slow down the aging process. If, for instance, you could keep telomeres from shorter and preserve their ability to, you know, delay the loss of little bits of DNA, you might be able to slow down the aging prospect. And that's obviously one thing that scientists are very, very interested in.
The other thing has to do with cancer. And cancer cells are fascinating because they divide all the time. So you might think that with all this cell division going on, this process where you lose a little bit of DNA with each division would be especially a problem for cancer cells, but it's not. Cancer cells divide, and divide, and divide and they seem to be immortal. They never go through this aging process. And they think telomeres are a key to understanding why that's possible
And so if you understood telomeres in that perspective, you might be able to find a new way to go after cancer cells.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR's science correspondent John Hamilton.
And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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