In tonight's "Making a Difference" segment we profile an amazing woman, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a native of Tasmania, Australia, who is now a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Today she shared with two others the Lasker Award, America's premier recognition for biomedical science. Dr. Blackburn's research focuses on an enzyme called telomerase that helps determine how long cells live and whether or not they become cancerous. It is basic, but it has enormous potential to lead to new cancer drugs as well as diseases associated with aging and stress. You can read a lot more about her, the other winners and the science behind the discoveries on the Lasker Foundation's Web site.
I would especially recommend the introduction by Dr. Joseph Goldstein, the chairman of the jury and one of the most witty and erudite scientists I know.
You may have heard of Dr. Blackburn in a political context. In 2002 she was asked to join President Bush's Council on Bioethics set up to advise the White House on questions such as stem cell research. In 2004 she was fired. She was never given a reason, but presumably she was canned because her scientific opinions did not conform to the administration expectations. She received thousands of e-mails and phone calls, almost all of them supportive of her efforts to try to stick with opinions she thought were scientifically correct.
"It was a much bigger reaction nationwide then I had ever expected," she explained to me, "over something that in itself was not a big think. But it was the representation, I think, of something that had been much more consistently happening."
I close tonight's piece by saying Dr. Blackburn might win the Nobel Prize on Monday when the award for Medicine for Physiology is announced. That is informed speculation. The Nobel committee in Sweden is notoriously secretive. I would bet a lot that Dr. Blackburn will win that prize, but it could take a few more years.