Columbia To Award 2007 Horwitz Prize To Three Generations Of Teacher-Student Scientists

October 3, 2007

Drs. Gall of Carnegie Institution, Blackburn of UCSF & Greider of Johns Hopkins Enlarge Fundamental Understanding of Aging

NEW YORK – October 3, 2007 - Columbia University will award the 2007 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize to Joseph G. Gall, Ph.D., a cell biologist at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Embryology, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., a biologist and physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco and Carol W. Greider, Ph.D., a molecular biologist and geneticist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The awardees, who represent three generations of teacher-student scientists, will be honored for work that has contributed to the fundamental understanding of the aging process.

Joseph G. Gall, Ph.D. Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D. Carol W. Greider, Ph. D. “The relationships among these three researchers represent the best promise of academic medicine – science educators guiding their students toward discovery that furthers understandings for the entire biomedical and science community,” said Lee Goldman, M.D., executive vice president of Columbia University and dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

“We are pleased to continue our Horwitz tradition by awarding this year’s prize to Joseph Gall, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider,” said David Hirsh, Ph.D., executive vice president for research at Columbia University. “Our greater knowledge of the aging process, based on their research, is already impacting the study of cell cycles and cell death – which is relevant to understanding neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.”

2007 Dinner Award Pictures

The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize was established by Columbia University to recognize outstanding contributions to basic research in the fields of biology and biochemistry. Awarded annually since 1967, the prize is named for the mother of Columbia benefactor S. Gross Horwitz. Louisa Gross Horwitz was daughter of Dr. Samuel David Gross, author of “A System of Surgery” and a founder of the American Medical Association. For additional information about the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, visit: http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/horwitz

The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize Lectures, presentations by the scientists, will be held on Monday, November 19. Dr. Gall will give his lecture at 10 a.m. in the Roone Arledge Cinema, Alfred Lerner Hall (2920 Broadway at W. 115th St.) at Columbia University’s Morningside Campus. Dr. Blackburn will give her lecture at 1:30 p.m., followed by Dr. Greider’s lecture at 3 p.m., both in the College of Physicians & Surgeons building (650 West 168th Street), Alumni Auditorium, at Columbia University Medical Center. For more information about the lectures, visit http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/events/deanlectures/#horwitz_prize

“These researchers – representing three generations of science passed down from teacher to student – have all contributed to the fundamental understanding of the process of aging, a body of work of enormous depth and value that may lead us to the discovery of keys to longevity and mortality,” said Andrew R. Marks, M.D., chair of the Horwitz Prize Committee at Columbia University. Dr. Marks is the Wu Professor of Molecular Cardiology and chairman of the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Pursuit of Basic Questions about Cell Workings Leads to Insights into Aging & Cancer

Work by these researchers led to discovery of the structure of telomeres and telomerase. It was started to answer two very fundamental questions: what prevents the cell from destroying its own chromosomes, and what prevents the chromosomes from shrinking.

Before the late 1970s and 1980s when the prize-winning work was performed, there were two mysteries about chromosomes. One, chromosomes are long lines of DNA so they have two ends, but cells recognize accidental breaks in chromosomes by their broken ends – why don’t the cells try to repair the ends of chromosomes? And even if they did, this might have negative consequences, e.g. a cell could join two different chromosomes together.

The second puzzle arose following discovery of how DNA copies itself. The process cannot copy the very ends of the chromosomes. So if the DNA is copied repeatedly (as in development, when DNA of one cell is copied in all subsequent cells) the chromosome eventually shortens so much that the cells are no longer viable.

Researchers surmised that something unusual was occurring at the ends of the chromosomes, known as telomeres.

Using animal models developed by Dr. Gall, Dr. Blackburn, then a research fellow in his lab at Yale, discovered a special DNA sequence – TTAGGG in humans – that is found nearly identically at the telomeres of nearly every type of animal and plant species. The telomeres protect the ends of the chromosomes and prevent them from opening up, which could result in separation of the two strands of DNA. Thus, the telomeres act as clamps on the ends of the chromosomes. In humans, there are thousands of these segments at the end of a chromosome.

Later, in Dr. Blackburn’s laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, she and Dr. Carol Grieder, then a research fellow, discovered an enzyme central to aging and cancer, which they named “telomerase.”

Though Drs. Gall, Blackburn and Greider did not set out to answer questions about aging, telomerase has provided answers. The sequencing of the telomeres and the discovery of telomerase has lead to an entirely new field of research that has yielded insights into the mechanisms of aging and the causes of cancer.

Because most human cells have limited amounts of telomerase, they have a limited lifespan. Adding telomerase to human cells in culture dishes makes cells immortal, giving telomerase a dark side: almost all cancer cells produce telomerase to fuel their uncontrollable proliferation. Drugs that inhibit telomerase are currently being sought as potential new treatments for cancer.

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American Medical Association, Columbia University, DNA, Gross Horwitz, Physicians Surgeons