Jack Szostak ’77 won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine yesterday, the Nobel Assembly announced. Szostak was part of a three-person team that discovered an enzyme that prevents chromosomes from unraveling when a cell divides. The discoveries may someday lead to a cure for cancer and even an antidote for aging.
“This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to three scientists who have solved a major problem in biology,” said a press release from the Nobel Assembly, which chooses the Nobel Prize winners.
Szostak’s two team members — Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco and Carol Greider of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine — identified an enzyme called telomerase. The enzyme builds an area of DNA called the telomere. Szostak and Blackburn discovered the function of telomeres.
The discovery of telomeres’ function may eventually lead to a cure for cancer and a therapy to prevent aging.
“Telomeres are these structures at the ends of chromosomes that are important for maintaining the integrity of the chromosome when DNA replicates,” said Kathy Hajjar, professor of cell and developmental biology. The telomeres keep the chromosomes — structures within a cell that carry DNA — from untangling, she said.
During cancer, when cells are dividing uncontrollably, telomeres may be acting abnormally, Hajjar said. If this problem in the telomeres could be corrected, the uncontrolled cell division of cancer could be stopped.
In addition to stopping cancer, research into telomeres could create a “fountain of youth,” Hajjar said.
Telomeres become a little shorter every time the cell divides, she said. After a certain number of cell divisions, the telomeres are so short that the cell cannot divide any more.
If scientists can find a way to prevent telomeres from shortening, they may be able to stop the aging process, she said.
Szostak and Blackburn published their discoveries about the function of telomeres in a paper in 1982.
Szostak received a doctorate in biochemistry from Cornell in 1977. He is currently a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.
In an interview with nobelprize.org on Monday morning, he said, “The world’s full of interesting problems and I think I like to work on problems that aren’t receiving a huge amount of attention.”
When he started working on telomeres, it was basic research, Szostak said.
“There were no applications envisaged at all. And yet, to our surprise, it turned out… to have important medical implications,” he said.
Szostak could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon. His home answering machine had received so many messages it would not accept any more.
Szostak joins the ranks of 12 other alumni and 28 current or former Cornell professors who have won the Nobel Prize, according to the University.
Winning the prize was “the most exciting thing I had happen in my life,” said Robert Richardson, the Floyd R. Newman Professor of Physics, who won the 1996 prize in physics after discovering a new phase of matter.
Roald Hoffmann, the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor in Humane Letters, said he heard on the radio that he had won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
“I quickly ran to the telephone because I knew it would start ringing,” he said.
There are positives and negatives to winning the prize, Hoffmann said.
“It allows you to make a fool of yourself when the press calls and asks for your opinion about this or that,” he said jokingly.
“In America, no one recognizes a Nobel Laureate on the street,” he said. But “my mother and my university were very happy.”
Along with the prestige of becoming a Nobel Laureate, winners also receive a monetary prize. They can spend the prize however they choose.
Szostak and the other two winners will split a $1.4 million prize.
When Richardson won in 1996, the one million dollar prize was split between him and two other winners. Half of his winnings were spent on taxes, he said, while the other half paid for his daughters’ educations and created a scholarship fund.
Hoffmann’s prize in 1981 was $90,000. He spent the money on a large party in Sweden, where the prizes are awarded, he said. He also bought a stereo and gave to charity.