Research for the sake of research
The importance of basic science research was highlighted last month when the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, announced that the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine would be awarded to three US scientists – Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Carol W. Greider of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Jack W. Szostak of Harvard Medical School – who discovered how chromosomes are able to be completely copied during cell division and how they are protected against degradation.
The three researchers, each of whom will receive one-third of the $1.4 million award, found the solution in the ends of the chromosomes, or the telomeres, and in telomerase, an enzyme that forms them. Blackburn and Szostak discovered that a unique DNA sequence in the telomeres – which have been compared to the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces – protects the chromosomes from degradation. Greider and Blackburn identified telomerase.
Cells age if telomeres are shortened, but if telomerase activity is high, telomeres do not shorten, and cellular aging is delayed. Cancer cells, which are considered “immortal,” exhibit high telomerase, and there are some inherited diseases in which defective telomerase results in cell damage. The Nobel citation noted that Blackburn, Greider and Szostak’s work has “added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms and stimulated the development of potential new therapies.”
As someone who has dedicated her life’s work to telomeres, Blackburn said in an interview with Nobelprize.org that she is still fascinated by “so many aspects” of the research. “First of all, just how does it work? Why are telomeres working the way they do?” she said. “And, every time we looked with an experiment, we would find something ever more complicated and clever that the cell did.”
In his interview, Szostak said that when he and Blackburn began working on telomeres, “there were no applications envisaged at all. And yet, to our surprise, it turned out ... to have important medical implications.”
Greider said the award is “a real tribute to curiosity-driven basic science,” that is, basic research with no apparent immediate clinical application.
While it is clinical application that ultimately will change our lives, there is no doubt that application hinges upon discovery. Research for the sake of research will always be fundamental to our growth as a species – in both understanding and interacting with the world around and within us.
“A lot of it is uncovering basic physical phenomena or developing new technologies, and you can’t really predict when applications will come up,” Szostak said.
After all, if discoveries are never made, we can hardly hope ever to find ways to apply them.
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