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Three U.S.-based scientists have won the 2009 Nobel prize for medicine for their discovery into how chromosomes are copied and protected. The work casts important light on cancer and the aging process. .
Elizabeth Blackburn from the University of California, San Francisco, Jack Szostak from Harvard Medical School and Carol Greider from Johns Hopkins University all share this year's Nobel prize for medicine.
Nobel Committee member Rune Toftgard from Sweden's Karolinska Institute says the three took the top honor for their work in the 1980s that revealed how chromosomes, the rod-like structures that carry DNA, protect themselves from degrading when cells divide.
"They have been awarded the prize for the discovery of telomeres and the enzyme telomerase and how it protects the chromosomes," said Toftgard.
Telomeres are structures at the ends of chromosomes often compared to the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces that keep the laces from unraveling.
The enzyme that builds telomeres is called telomerase.
Professor Toftgard says the function of telomeres is absolutely crucial in understanding how genetic material is copied and preserved.
"All genes are encoded by DNA, and the DNA is present in the chromosomes in the cell nucleus and telomeres, they are the ends of the chromosomes and they have an important function to protect the chromosomes and maintain the integrity of the chromosomes," added Toftgard.
Their research has shed new light on disease mechanisms and has spawned the development of potential new therapies.
For instance, some research suggests that cancer cells use the enzyme telomerase to sustain their uncontrolled growth. Some in the scientific community are studying whether drugs that block the enzyme can fight the disease.
Elizabeth Backburn says she was awakened at 2 in the morning with the news of the award. She says prizes are always a nice thing and it is lovely to share it with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak.
The three will also share the $1.4 million that comes with the prestigious award.