The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded on Monday to three American scientists: Elizabeth H. Blackburn (University of California, San Francisco), Carol W. Greider (Johns Hopkins University), and Jack W. Szostak (Harvard). The three discovered telomeres, short sequences of DNA at the end of each chromosome that act as a protective cap, helping to limit how many times a cell can divide. This New York Times article has a nice description of telomeres and the broader significance of this work for cancer therapies and aging research.
So how much federal funding was invested in this Nobel Award? According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately $32 million between the three researchers. To the average reader, this sure sounds like a lot. But when you consider that an average 4-year research grant to support a small lab can easily total $1.5 million, and many labs have two or more, it's actually a bargain.
It's also worth pointing out that the economic burden of cancer illness and deaths in 2004 alone was nearly $200 billion.
The recognition that telomeres play an important role in aging and cancer - which was not foreseen - serves as yet another reminder why research dollars invested in "basic research" are dollars invested wisely.
As an aside, every time I think of telomeres I recall one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits, "Stand Up and Win." It's the one featuring Jerry Seinfeld as M.C. of a game show. The winner receives a year's supply of the plastic thingies that protect the ends of shoelaces. Seinfeld exclaims, "They don't have a name!"