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Australia says first female Nobel laureate an 'inspiration'

world Updated: Oct 06, 2009 12:00 IST

Australia on Tuesday hailed its first female Nobel laureate as an inspiration after she landed the medicine prize for discovering an enzyme described as a potential "fountain of youth".

Elizabeth Blackburn, from Tasmania, was celebrating after being named joint winner with colleagues Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for their work on how cells protect themselves against age and disease.

Scientists say their research, particularly in discovering the enzyme telomere, could help unlock how chromosomes can remain healthy for longer and stop cancer growth.

"It sort of translates into a fountain of youth. The number of years of healthy living is related to telomere length," said Blackburn, who studied at Australia's University of Melbourne before moving to the United States.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd led the praise for the 60-year-old biologist, who he said could inspire other Australian women to similar achievements.

"This is a great day for Australian science," Rudd said. "Professor Blackburn's achievements are an inspiration for all Australian scientists and those considering a career in science, especially young women.

"As a nation, Australia has made frequent contributions to the world's great discoveries and Professor Blackburn's work continues that proud tradition."

All of Australia's previous Nobel wins have been in science or medicine, apart from author Patrick White who won the literature prize in 1973. The most recent winners were Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, who won the medicine award in 2005.

Rudd also praised Blackburn's "reputation as an Australian scientist who places as much weight on the ethics of research as on the practice of science", while Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard called it a "remarkable achievement".

Australian Academy of Science spokesman Professor Bob Williamson said the science community was "over the moon" with Blackburn's win.

"Partly because it's an Australian and partly because it's a woman," he told AFP. "Also because this is a really good scientific discovery that started as a piece of pure science. It's a very fundamental discovery."

Williamson also said Blackburn, who is based at the University of California in San Francisco but spends about one month each year teaching and carrying out research in Australia, was a "wonderful mentor and role model".

Blackburn's groundbreaking work discovered that telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, helped stop human cells from degenerating when they replicated and has opened up a new field of molecular biology.

Rob Saint, dean of science at the University of Melbourne, said it was a "real thrill" to see her gain such recognition.

"We've understood the quality and the impact of Liz's work for a long time but to see her recognised in such a public way is really wonderful," Saint told AFP.

He said while Blackburn had been living in the United States for many years, she had retained her Australian citizenship "so we still consider her one of our own".

"I think what the prize will do for all young Australians, but particularly young women, is to demonstrate that the sky is the limit," he said.