3 Americans share Nobel in medicine
Three Americans - two of them women - won the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine for work that used simple pond organisms to uncover a key part of the aging process in our own cells.
It was the first time that the prize for medicine went to two women - Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California San Francisco and Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University. The other winner, Jack Szostak, is a biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Their work in the early 1980s clarified the nature of molecular-scale structures called telomeres - sometimes likened to the caps at the ends of shoelaces because they keep our genetic material from fraying. As we age, our telomeres inexorably shrink, causing the death of our cells and, eventually, us.
The study of telomeres has since opened up vast avenues of research not only in aging but in cancer and other diseases. "Those of us in the field have been asking, 'When in the world is the Nobel committee going to get around to this?' " said Joseph Gall, a biologist at the Carnegie Institution in Baltimore.
In cancer, tumor cells often manage to turn off the telomere aging clock - allowing more rapid, uncontrolled division, and researchers are experimenting with drugs to turn the clock back on.