December 7, 2009

WORLD: Nobel laureate aims to shed light on age-linked disease

. STOCKHOLM, Sweden / Reuters / Health / December 7, 2009 One of this year's three Nobel prize winners for medicine said on Sunday she hoped their groundbreaking research could help to shed light on common, age-related diseases that AIDS sufferers face at an early stage. Elizabeth Blackburn was one of the three Americans to win the 10 million crown ($1.45 million) Nobel prize for revealing the nature of telomerase, an enzyme that helps to prevent the fraying of chromosomes that underlies aging and cancer. Blackburn told a news conference that HIV treatments, when available, had helped to make it possible for many people who suffer from AIDS to live much longer lives. This created an opportunity for scientists to examine how the maintenance of telomeres -- the small caps on the end of chromosomes that carry the DNA -- relates to the underlying biology of those with AIDS. "Fascinatingly, they are showing premature onset of the common age-related diseases -- cardiovascular, dementia, renal, osteoporosis," she told journalists, students and researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. Elizabeth Blackburn in her lab at the University of California, San Francisco. Copyright © University of California, San Francisco 2009 Photo: Elisabeth Fall/ "This is showing up as a late, slow epidemic as a consequence apparently of the wonderful success of keeping people alive," said Australian-born Blackburn. The AIDS virus infects 33 million people globally, but more people are living longer thanks to HIV drugs, according to a recent U.N. report. Cocktails of drugs can control HIV but there is no cure and no vaccine. Blackburn, a molecular biologist and biochemist at the University of California San Francisco, said she is working with her clinical colleagues to discover whether AIDS patients have the same underlying biology as those who suffer from common age-related diseases, or whether the premature onset of their diseases are perhaps a result of something else. "It's not so much a cure for AIDS so much as understanding what's happening when we can, within the medical community, successfully treat AIDS," she said. "Perhaps that will actually lead to insights into the normal process of aging, because of this inadvertent experiment that's happened with people." Blackburn is Stockholm this week along with Carol Greider and British-born Jack Szostak to receive their award at a banquet on Thursday. Prizes for the sciences and for peace were established in the will of 19th century dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel and have been handed out since 1901. [rc] © Thomson Reuters 2009