UCSF's Elizabeth Blackburn Receives Two Major Science Awards

February 10, 1999

Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of California San Francisco, has been named 1999 California Scientist of the Year and is the recipient of the 1998 Passano Award, two high honors in science.

Blackburn received the honors for her pioneering studies on telomeres, segments of DNA that bind both ends of chromosomes, the gene-bearing strands of DNA whose integrity is essential for the healthy development and life span of organisms.

During two decades of research, Blackburn has determined that telomeres are crucial for maintaining the stability and integrity of chromosomes. In 1985, she and her then PhD graduate student at UC Berkeley, Carol Greider, discovered the novel enzyme that creates telomeres.

Telomeres play a curious, but key, role in determining the number of times a cell divides--an event that affects the life span and health of cells and the development of some cancers. Blackburn's discovery of the enzyme telomerase has spawned a whole field of inquiry into the possibility that the enzyme could be manipulated to prolong cell life and combat cancer.

Blackburn received the California Scientist of the Year award from the California Science Center, a department of the state of California, and its nonprofit affiliate, the California Science Center Foundation. The award recognizes a current contribution to science that "extends the boundaries of any field of science" and signifies a "definite advance of knowledge."

Nine California Scientists of the Year recipients have subsequently won the Nobel Prize, including UC San Francisco Chancellor J. Michael Bishop, M.D., and UCSF professor Harold E. Varmus, M.D., currently director of the National Institutes of Health.

Blackburn received the Passano Award from the Passano Foundation, which annually recognizes an outstanding contribution to the advancement of medical science, with prime consideration given to work with immediate clinical value or promise of practical application in the near future. To date, 20 Passano award winners have subsequently received the Nobel Prize, including UCSF's Bishop and Varmus. Blackburn joined UCSF as a professor in 1990, and in 1993 was the first woman named to head the UCSF School of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

A native of Australia, she was named in 1993 a foreign associate to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors that can be awarded to a scientist in the United States.

Blackburn is president of the American Society for Cell Biology, an organization of nearly 9,000 members that provides for the exchange of scientific knowledge in cell biology and that strives to ensure the future of basic scientific research through training and development opportunities for students and young investigators.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband, John Sedat, a professor of genetics at UCSF.
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University of California - San Francisco

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