Prof. Elizabeth Helen Blackburn, PhD
Interview vom July 17, 2009 with Dr. Birgit Teichmann
The molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, in 2007 she was listed among Time Magazine´s 100 Most Influential People in The World, spoke at the Heidelberger Forum for Bioscience and Society in cooperation with the Network Aging Research about the “Telomerase and the reasons for aging”.
You are considered the queen of telomeres. In 1984 you discovered telomerase together with Carol Greider. What actually are telomere and telomerase?
Telomere are the endings of our chromosomes. They serve as a protective cap, because they are being shortened by each cell division, piece by piece. At a critical length, the cell division is stopped totally – the cell has aged. Telomerase is a protein, with the mission to reconstruct the telomere. These two terms are somewhat confusing – Telomere and Telomerase. They come from the Greek language, telos = the end, melos = the place. We simply had to find a name and Tetrahymenathermophilatelomerterminaltransferase was too long, that would be the name of the ciliates, in which we first discovered the protein and its function.
Two aspects are brought in connection with Telomeres and Telomerase: Cancer and Aging. Which connection exists between the length of Telomeres and aging? Is it possible to use the length of the telomeres as a “clock of aging”?
No. This is a mere statistical association, which shows up in studies with an extreme large number of people. Most people are fascinated and ask what the length of telomere reveals. Individually, it does not mean anything. Many studies are necessary, primarily longitudinal studies, in order to see what happens with the telomere. From a statistical standpoint, there is a connection between the length of telomere and age, you can see that the length of telomere decreases. But you cannot draw conclusion on age itself. When we look at tumor cells: they are immortal, meaning that they can continue to divide. However, their telomeres are short, but for that they hold a huge amount of telomerase. This shows that the telomerase protects the telomere. Therefore, it is not alone the length of telomere which determines how often a cell is able to divide, but the interaction of both: the length of telomere and the amount of telomerase.
You have found proof that the activity of telomerase and with it the length of telomeres can be influenced directly by emotional stress. Do we need to avoid stress in order to live longer?
We have tested immune cells of 58 women, of which 19 had healthy children and 39 had to take care of chronically ill children. The stressed mothers of the sick children exhibited by far shorter telomeres and a weakened immune system. This was the first proof for the influence of mind on body cells. These results came as a surprise to us. We could also see, that patients with risk factors for coronal diseases have less telomerase. Science becomes more and more interdisciplinary. Ten years ago, I would not have thought that I would cooperate with psychologists and think about intervention with meditation, in order to see if it has any effect on telomerase. The separation of brain and body is actually not very scientific. The brain controls many physiological activities, why not also the amount of telomerase, which are generated?
Can we prolong life by regulating the telomerase activity? Or does that lead automatically to the development of tumors?
Telomerase itself is not tumorigen! Tumor cells have different genetics, meaning when the cells “only” produce more telomerase, they don’t automatically become immortal. At the moment, the magic pill, which you swallow and then you have more telomerase and your cells live longer, is still science fiction. Why some people become old and others don’t, is still a secret. When you ask them: What have you done to become so old, you will get the answer, which is usually identical: My parents were also old. The second answer differs always considerably: I have smoked, I have never smoked, I was thin, I was fat, I have exercised or not. Therefore, there is no secret recipe. Genetics are one thing, but the interaction of genetic and non-genetic influences is exciting and has to be examined closely.
In March of this year you have received the L’Oréal/UNESCO-price for “women in science”. During your career, you have received numerous awards. What does this special price mean to you?
The price means very much to me, because it takes awards like this to show that science and family is no contradiction. When you look at figures, also in my laboratory, then you will find that at the end of a PhD there are equally as many women as men. After that, the figures drift far apart. You will hardly find any women in higher positions. This is a terrible waste of talent, because these women who dedicate their life totally to their family, have studied for so long. There have to be examples, like myself, which show that family and a scientific career at a high standard are compatible.
What new research results will you report next?
We have a current study about people, who care for dementia patients. We want to know what effect the emotional stress has. In our laboratory we work on mechanical models on a molecular level and I find it exciting to find out how exactly telomerase works. I hope to contribute lots of exciting results in this research.
Elizabeth Blackburn born 1948 in Hobart, Tasmania, is an Australian-born U.S. biologist who studies the telomere and co-discovered telomerase.
Blackburn studied at the University of Melbourne earning a B.Sc (1979) and M.Sc. (1972). In 1975 she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in England. Her postdoctoral study in molecular and cellular biology was at Yale University (1975-1977). In 1978, Dr. Blackburn joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley in the Department of Molecular Biology. In 1990, she moved across the Bay to the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Currently she is the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at UCSF.
Throughout her career, Blackburn has been honored by her peers as the recipient of many prestigious awards. These include the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award in Basic Medical Research  and the L´Oreál-UNESCO Award for Women in Science .
Elizabeth Blackburn is married to John Sedat and has a son.