March 1, 2012

Vanderbilt Prize winner outlines telomeres research

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At her Discovery Lecture last week, Vanderbilt Prize winner Titia de Lange, Ph.D., right, talks with Bianca Sirbu, who was selected as the 2011 Vanderbilt Prize Scholar. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Vanderbilt Prize winner outlines telomeres research

Rockefeller University’s Titia de Lange, Ph.D., recipient of the 2011 Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science, described her pioneering studies of telomeres, the protective ends of chromosomes, to a rapt Vanderbilt audience last week.

“Her scientific achievements are absolutely incredible,” said Susan Wente, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research, in introducing de Lange’s Discovery Lecture.

De Lange is the sixth recipient of the Vanderbilt Prize, established in 2006 to honor women who have made significant contributions in the biological and biomedical sciences and in mentoring other women in science.

The Vanderbilt Prize includes a $25,000 cash award. Recipients also help “nurture” the careers of Vanderbilt Prize Scholars, women who are pursuing graduate studies at Vanderbilt.

De Lange will mentor Bianca Sirbu, a Biochemistry graduate student in the laboratory of David Cortez, Ph.D., who was selected as the 2011 Vanderbilt Prize Scholar for outstanding research achievements in the field of DNA replication and damage.

In introducing Sirbu, Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs, said her accomplishments are “extraordinary.” Recently Sirbu developed a “breakthrough” technique for identifying and monitoring proteins involved in DNA replication and DNA damage responses.

As she began her lecture, de Lange said the highlight of her Vanderbilt visit was lunch with Sirbu. She predicted they would stay in touch throughout Sirbu’s career.

“With my walker, I will come to Sweden when you win your Nobel Prize,” she quipped as laughter filled the lecture hall.

De Lange, an American Cancer Society Research Professor who directs the Anderson Center for Cancer Research at Rockefeller, described how telomeres protect the ends of linear chromosomes from degradation and ensure that genetic material is safely inherited during cell division.

Impaired functioning of telomeres can lead to genomic instability and cancer, and also can accelerate the aging process.

Using cell biological and genetic approaches including “knockout” mice models, de Lange and her colleagues have found that a protein complex she named “shelterin” can prevent degradation of the telomeres themselves by blocking six different DNA damage response pathways.

“At this point we will endeavor to understand exactly how these proteins repress each of these pathways,” she said. “I hope to come back in another 10 years to report on those.”

For more information about the Vanderbilt Prize, go to and click on “Vanderbilt Prize.”

For a complete schedule of the Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to