UCSB alumna Carol Greider spoke about her Nobel Prize-winning cancer research in Corwin Pavilion last Friday.
Greider and colleagues, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and geneticist Jack Szostak, were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Greider — the first graduate from UCSB to become a Nobel laureate — summarized her findings on telomerase degradation and their implications on cancer treatment at the free lecture.
According to Greider, her team’s research wasn’t specifically aimed at cancer treatment at first. They began by addressing a fundamental question of cell division — why chromosome-protecting caps, a.k.a. telomeres, do not degrade during mitosis.
“Our research was born out of pure scientific curiosity,” Greider said. “We had no idea when we began [to realize] its potential implications in cancer and other diseases.”
Greider and colleagues discovered that chromosomes are protected from cancer and degradation by telomerase — an enzyme that builds and repairs telomeres.
Telomerase is fundamental in cells that must undergo frequent cell division because it rebuilds ruined telomeres after division.
In experiments performed on lab mice, the team found a progressive shortening of telomeres in mice lacking telomerase. This eventually led to cell death in the fourth generation of mice.
The unusually high telomerase levels present in cancer cells allow them to divide endlessly without risk of cell death. Greider found that treatments capable of influencing telomerase levels in certain cancers could lead to new treatments.
Greider’s discovery of telomerase also prompted a surge of studies seeking to understand the relationships between telomerase, telomeres and age-related diseases.
One such experiment linked shortened telomere length to diseases like pulmonary fibrosis, liver disease and cancer.
“It has become clear in recent years that even more diseases can be linked to telomere shortening,” Greider said. “However, we believe that understanding causes of telomere depletion will help direct future treatments.”
Chancellor Henry T. Yang said UCSB maintains an enduring partnership with the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara and the Doreen J. Putrah Cancer Research Foundation, the organizations that funded the reception and discussion.
“We have created a unique environment that fosters the growth of research into cancer prevention and treatment,” Yang said.
Greider graduated from UCSB’s College of Creative Studies in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She earned her Ph.D. in molecular biology at UC Berkeley and is currently director of the Molecular Biology and Genetics Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.