Nobel Laureate in Medicine Wins Acclaim Despite Past Political Skirmishes

October 05, 2009

For one of today's winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California at San Francisco, the news isn't her first exposure to widespread public attention.

Back in 2004, during the Bush administration, Ms. Blackburn was one of two scientists dismissed from the President's Council on Bioethics, after they dissented from the panel by arguing that the federal government should not bar scientists from creating cloned embryos as a source of stem cells for medical research.

Today, along with two other American researchers—Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins University, and Jack W. Szostak of the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital—she won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery, in the 1980s, of how chromosomes are duplicated during cell division and how telomeres—the caps at the ends of chromosome strands—prevent the copying from being degraded.

After her appointment to the President's Council on Bioethics, and her subsequent removal, Ms. Blackburn co-authored articles in PLoS Biology and The New England Journal of Medicine accusing the council of deliberately misrepresenting the nature of research on human aging and stem cells.

Even those who questioned her political stance in 2004, however, say there's no reason to doubt her scientific accomplishment. John H. Evans, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego who writes about the relationship between science and society, said Ms. Blackburn's experience with the council merely made her an example of the much wider dispute between the Bush administration and the defenders of "institutional science."

The Bush administration was not repressing science, as Ms. Blackburn suggested in her New England Journal of Medicine article, Mr. Evans said, but merely suggesting that exploration could have limits based on political values. And either way, he said, she no doubt deserves the Nobel.

Last year she was one of the first women to win the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the largest award in American medicine.

William B. Hurlbut, a bioethicist and physician at the Stanford University School of Medicine who also served on the bioethics council in the Bush administration and supports limits on stem-cell research, said he agreed. "I'm inclined to think she is deserving of this honor based on the merit of her science," Dr. Hurlbut said. —Paul Basken