BAR HARBOR, Maine — A co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine spent a summer as a student in genetics at The Jackson Laboratory.
Jack W. Szostak, 57, is one of three scientists, all U.S. citizens, who are receiving the prize for their work in researching chromosomes. They are credited with figuring out how chromosomes are copied completely and without degradation during cell divisions — a now-solved mystery described by the Nobel Foundation as “a major problem in biology.”
Szostak, a professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, spent the summer of 1970 at the Jackson Lab studying genes associated with thyroid function, the lab announced Monday. A native of London, Szostak was an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal at the time.
Szostak’s co-winners for the Nobel prize are Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California and Carol W. Greider of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
In 1970, Szostak worked at Jackson Lab under the mentorship of Dr. Chen K. Chai. In a memo to the program director at the end of that summer, Chai described Szostak as “very sharp and sensitive in absorbing ideas” and in doing lab work.
“I certainly feel that Jack has a keen interest in science and has a good potential to be a scientist,” Chai wrote in the memo.
The award-winning work by Szostak, Blackburn and Greider focused on telomeres, which are structures at the end of chromosomes. How well telomeres function seems to have an effect on aging, cancer and certain inherited diseases, according to the Nobel committee that bestowed the award.
“This award really crystallizes the importance of chromosome and telomere maintenance to human health and disease,” Rick Maser, an assistant professor at Jackson Lab, indicated in a prepared statement. Maser conducts similar research on telomeres at the lab.
“The work of Dr. Szostak and his colleagues addressed a set of fundamental questions that had lingered in biology for 40 or 50 years,” Maser said in the statement. “How are normal chromosome ends different from those on broken chromosomes? And how do normal telomeres stay intact? It also validates how studies using all manner of experimental organisms can be used to understand ourselves.”
Szostak is the third Nobel winner to have gone through the lab’s summer student program, which has been completed by more than 2,000 high school and college students. Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Howard Temin, who both studied at the lab in 1955, won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1975 along with Renato Dulbecco.
Jackson Lab scientist George Snell was a co-winner of the Nobel prize for medicine in 1980, when he was recognized for his work in genetics and immunology. According to lab officials, 20 other Nobel prizes are associated with the lab, either through the application of genetic principles first developed by Jackson Lab founder Clarence Cook Little or through research using mice breeds developed at the lab.
Doug Coleman, another former Jackson Lab scientist who still owns land in Lamoine, was named co-recipient of the prestigious Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine for 2009 earlier this year along with Jeffrey M. Friedman for their work leading to the discovery of leptin, a hormone that regulates food intake and body weight. Coleman was scheduled to accept the award in Hong Kong today.
Jackson Lab, recognized worldwide as a leader in biomedical research, uses mice to study human diseases and medical conditions and breeds millions of mice each year which are used in similar research around the globe.
With more than 1,300 employees, Jackson Lab is the largest employer in Hancock County and one of the largest in eastern Maine.