American trio share Nobel prize for hot area in pharma research

The Nobel Prize for Medicine was won by three American scientists Monday. The trio won the coveted award for answering some of the most basic questions in life, further deciphering one of our building blocks -- the human cell.

The three Americans joining the long list of Nobel Laureates in their field are (see photo below) British-born Jack Szostak, 56, a professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston; Carol Greider, 48, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore; and Australian-born Elizabeth Blackburn, 60, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco. They will shares a prize of 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.42 million).

What did they discover? Well, when half a century ago scientists found out how the DNA molecules that copy our genetic code are copied in their entirety each time a cell is divided, they couldn't understand how the chromosome was never degraded in the process. But the Nobel Laureates have solved this "major problem in biology," by finding the solution is "in the ends of the chromosomes – the telomeres – and in an enzyme that forms them – telomerase." The telomeres prevent genetic material from being degraded when the cell reproduces and telomerase, dubbed the "immortality enzyme," which forms them delays cellular senescence.

While Ray Kurzweil and others may jump at this immortality prospect, the problem is that when telomerase is highly active, the cell keeps dividing and dividing, without dying. But this applies to all kinds of cells, including cancer cells. Indeed, it was found that they often have increased telomerase activity. Conversely, inherited diseases often have defective telomerase, resulting in damaged cells.

The discovery also has practical applications. The assembly explained, "The award of the Nobel Prize recognizes the discovery of a fundamental mechanism in the cell, a discovery that has stimulated the development of new therapeutic strategies." Indeed, the discoveries opened up the door to new treatments, like targeting cells with elevated telomerase activity.

Of course, pharmaceutical companies haven't waited for the Nobel Prize award to make their move but have started researching the area for drug possibilities, particularly in cancer where cells multiply out of control and the telomeres play a key role.

Merck & Co. (MRK) and Geron (GERN) have tried to develop a therapeutic vaccine -- a vaccine given after, not before, the person is sick -- for patients with tumors. There is one clinical trial for the so-called cancer vaccine directed against human telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT). Geron has more on its site regarding the vaccine and the trial. It is also in early clinical trials of a general telomerase inhibitor drug for several types of cancer.

Medicine is traditionally the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year. In the next few days, the prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Peace and Economics will be awarded in the order. The prizes for achievement in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.

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