This year's Körber European Science Award, endowed with 750,000 Euros, goes to Maria Blasco. Born in Spain in 1965, the molecular biologist has distinguished herself with pioneering work in the field of telomeres, the end pieces of chromosomes. Her findings gathered in mouse experiments promise new kinds of cancer therapy and could help to prolong the life of cells – and hence possibly also that of humans.
Maria Blasco heads the Research Group for Telomeres and Telomerase at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid. Telomeres protect the hereditary information of our genes in a similar way to the plastic caps on the ends of shoe-laces. The protection provided by the telomeres does not last forever. After roughly 50 cell divisions they become so short that the cells can no longer divide and consequently die. This is probably the main cause of natural ageing.
There are, however, cells in the body which are theoretically "immortal". These include cancer cells and stem cells, which are not differentiated and help to repair injuries to the skin, for example. The special feature of these cells is an enzyme, discovered in 1984, called telomerase, which enables the shortened telomeres to regain their former length. This is a vital clue to the immortality of cancer cells.
This is where Mario Blasco comes in: her team aims to develop an active ingredient which inhibits telomerase in cancer cells. This would make them mortal like normal cells – and once they are killed, the cancer would be conquered.
The Körber Award, which is now in its 24th year, promotes European scientists with particularly innovative research projects. The winners are determined by an international trustee committee chaired by the president of the Max Planck Society, Prof. Dr. Peter Gruss. It will be presented on 8 September in the Main Festival Hall of Hamburg City Hall.
MEDICA.de; Quelle: Koerber Foundation