Cambridge Scientists win Nobel Prizes

Liam McNulty - News Reporter 19 October 2009

The University of Cambridge has started its 800th academic year with the news that two scientists linked to the institution have been awarded Nobel Prizes in their respective fields.

Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, an Indian-born structural biologist currently based at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (MRC), won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome. Dr Ramakrishnan shares the prize with Thomas A. Steitz of Yale University and Ada E. Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Speaking in a statement, Dr Ramakrishnan said:‘‘I have to say that I am deeply indebted to all of the brilliant associates, students and post docs who worked in my lab as science is a highly collaborative enterprise. The MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the University of Utah supported this work and the collegiate atmosphere there made it all possible. The idea of supporting long term basic research like that at LMB does lead to breakthroughs, the ribosome is already starting to show its medical importance.”

Also receiving a Nobel Prize this year was Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, an alumna of Darwin College, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for her work on telomerase, an enzyme she discovered in 1985 with her then PhD student Carol Greider.She is currently based at the University of California in San Francisco, and shares the prize of £818,000 (10m Swedish kronor) with Dr. Greider and Jack Szostak.

Professor Blackburn and her colleagues solved a major problem in biology.  They discovered how chromosomes can be copied during cell divisions without suffering degradation.  The scientists found the solution in the ends of the chromosomes (the telomeres) and in telomerase, the enzyme that forms them.

In announcing the award, the Nobel Assembly said that, “the discoveries by Blackburn, Greider and Szostak have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies.”

Professor William Brown, Master of Darwin College, told The Cambridge Student that “Darwin College is proud to have Elizabeth as our first, but definitely not our last, student Nobel prizewinner. It was particularly pleasant that she was able to stay in College for some days when she came for her Honorary Degree this summer and therefore was able to renew connections with a lively and bigger College.”

According to the Nobel Foundation, Prof Blackburn is one of a record five women who were honoured by the Nobel committees this year. In total, only 40 women have won any of the prestigious prizes since their inception in 1901.  In doing so this year,  Prof Blackburn joins a list which includes among others, Marie Curie who took the Prize for Physics in 1903 and the Prize for Chemistry in 1911.

Cambridge has more Nobel laureates than any other institution. The university has won a total of 85 prizes across all the categories.More specifically, the university has won 29 prizes for physics, 24 for medicine, 19 for chemistry, seven for economics, two for literature and two for peace.

Liam McNulty – News Reporter