Charting Her Own Course

From The New York Times:

BonoScientists are trained to be skeptics, and Elizabeth H. Blackburn considers herself one of the biggest. Show her the data, and be ready to defend it. But even though she relishes the give and take, Dr. Blackburn admits to impatience at times with the questions some scientists have raised about one of her ventures. “It’s just such a no-brainer, and yet people have such difficulty understanding it,” she said. At issue is a lab test that measures telomeres, stretches of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes and help keep cells from aging too soon. Unusually short telomeres may be a sign of illness, and Dr. Blackburn, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine for her work on telomeres (TEEL-o-meers), thinks measuring them could give doctors and patients a chance to intervene early and maybe even prevent disease. A company she helped found expects to begin offering tests to the public later this year. Other researchers have raised doubts about the usefulness of the measurement, which does not diagnose a specific disease.

But Dr. Blackburn, 64, a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, says she has been convinced by a decade of data from her own team and others, linking short telomeres to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other diseases, and to chronic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. With studies that explore the connections among emotional stress, health and telomeres, she has delved into questions that she would have shied away from earlier in her career, as a woman trying to establish herself in science. But now, she has enough confidence and autonomy to follow the leads that intrigue her. The scope of her research has expanded tremendously, from a tight focus on molecular biology to broader questions about the implications of her work for health and public policy.

More here.