The winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine were revealed today, shared by three Americans: Carol Greider, Elisabeth Blackburn, and Jack Szostak, the latter of whom works at my home institution of Massachusetts General Hospital. The award was given for their work on telomeres, the regions of repetitive DNA which form protective “caps” on the ends of chromosomal DNA, necessary for preventing the degradation of DNA ends. The study of telomeres has implications not only for basic molecular biology, but also for cancer biology: many tumor lines express an enzyme called telomerase, which catalyzes the addition of telomeres onto DNA ends by virtue of a reverse transcriptase-based mechanism, allowing cancer cells to sustain their high rate of cell division.
For instance, in a 1999 KI study by Dahse et al, increased telomerase activity was detected in 55 out of 60 different primary renal cell carcinoma lines.
It's worth noting that 1) Greider was Blackburn's grad student but Blackburn shared the glory (unlike several male recipients) and 2) Blackburn was the scientist who got fired from the Bush "bioethics panel" for daring to inject some reality into the stem cell debate.