From Pond Scum to Social Justice; A Noble Laureate’s Journey

Nobel Laureate and University of Melbourne graduate Elizabeth Blackburn delivered the 2015 Vincent Fairfax Oration at Melbourne Town Hall last Wednesday evening. In it, she described a scientific journey that started at the end of a laboratory microscope almost three decades ago and has led to new insights about a genetic determinant of age-related diseases.

Elizabeth Blackburn was born in Tasmania and, after completing her B. Sc. and M. Sc. degrees at the University of Melbourne, she moved to Cambridge University where she completed her PhD in 1975. Since then, she has lived and worked in the USA. For the last 25 years she has been a Professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

As a young scientist, Elizabeth Blackburn studied the genetic structures of the scum that collects on stagnant pools of water. Unlike humans, whose DNA has long structures with fewer ends, the DNA of pool scum are short and, therefore there are lots of ends to study.  And, it is at the ends of the DNA structures where telomeres are found.  Telomeres are like caps. They keep the genetic information in our chromosomes intact. However, over time, the telomeres get shorter, and the chromosomes begin to fray and lose some of their functionality.  The shortening of telomeres has been shown to lead to biological aging and to the risks of several age-related diseases, including cancer, diabetes, depression and cardio-vascular disease. Longer telomeres keep you younger and reduce your risks of morbid diseases.

Professor Blackburn and her colleagues study the molecular structure of telomeres and in the process discovered a new enzyme, which they named telomerase. They also discovered that the levels of telomerase influenced the rates of attrition in telomeres. The more of the telomerase enzyme in a person’s cells, the slower the decline in the length of their telomeres and the slower the biological aging process.  For this discovery Blackburn and colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009.

The discovery of telomerase and the function it has in the aging process has been used to develop and market telomerase as an anti-aging drug along with promises of ‘turning back the clock’ and ‘a younger healthier skin’.  But, as Professor Blackburn explained, the complexity of human biology raises serious questions about the ethics of marketing telomerase drugs. Telomerase is only one part of the aging process and increasing levels telomerase also increases the risk of several particularly severe forms of cancer.  In short, there currently is no easy fix to the problems of aging. Telomerase supplements are a fool’s medicine.

More recently, Professor Blackburn has collaborated with a range of scientists from different disciplines in the study on environmental factors that influence the attrition of telomeres and the related increases in biological aging and risks of morbid diseases. The picture emerging from this research is that prolonged exposure to acute stressors, such as domestic abuse and other forms of violence, living in neighbourhoods blighted by crime and drugs and emotional neglect during childhood, are all related to the attrition of telomeres and the increased risk of morbid diseases.  Education and other sources of human development provide a buffer against these risks. According to Professor Blackburn, “we now know what we already knew – that environmental stress hormones lead to increased risks of morbid diseases and earlier death – but now we also know that this relationship is mediated through impacts on the telomeres, a genetic pathway”.

The emerging evidence is that the long known negative effects of social and economic disadvantage and the lack of a supportive, educative childhood are altering genetic structures. More alarming, the effect is intergenerational. Children born to mothers who suffer stress during pregnancy have shorter telomeres, confining them to a lifetime of premature biological aging and morbid disease.

Once again, Professor Blackburn’s research raises important ethical questions. A central question in ethical reasoning is “how are we to relate to each other, other species and the environment in order to ensure that our individual and collective well being is enhanced?” Does the knowledge that the lives people are born into affects their genetic structure, affect the system of social justice you would prescribe?  Does the fact that some children can be born programmed to age faster and have a higher risk of morbid diseases than their peers, through the luck of a biological draw, alter how you think about spending on early schooling, domestic violence and other social conditions that affect stress in the life of a child?

Amazing to think that biological studies of pool scum could provide insights with such deep implications for social justice. Professor Blackburn’s research journey is a great model for young, and not so young, researchers.

Professor Robert WoodCentre for Ethical Leadership @ Ormond College

University of Melbourne

August 9, 2015