Australian-American researcher Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider and Jack Szostak of the United States won the Nobel Medicine Prize on Monday for identifying a key molecular switch in cellular ageing.
The trio were honoured for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the role of an enzyme called telomerase in maintaining or stripping away this vital shield.
"The award of the Nobel Prize recognises the discovery of a fundamental mechanism in the cell, a discovery that has stimulated the development of new therapeutic strategies," the Nobel jury said.
The three told Swedish Radio they were overjoyed by the news.
Greider said she was "just thrilled, I just think that the recognition for curiosity-driven basic science is very, very nice," adding that she was up doing laundry in the US when the early morning call came from Sweden.
Blackburn said she knew when they made their discovery that they were on to something big.
"I felt very excited ... and I thought this is very interesting, this is a very important result, and you don't often feel that about a result," she said.
Szostak said meanwhile he expected "to have a big party at some point" to celebrate the prestigious award.
Telomeres are a minute yet vital factor in ageing. They are like a nubby, protective cap, fitting on the ends of the strands of DNA -- the chemical recipe for life -- that are packed into chromosomes.
Blackburn and Szostak discovered in 1982 that a unique DNA sequence in the telomeres protects the chromosomes from degradation when the cells divide.
With Greider, Blackburn also identified telomerase, the enzyme that makes the telomere DNA.
If telomeres become worn, cells age. But if telomerase levels are high, the telomere length is maintained, and cellular ageing is braked. A small number of rare but very destructive diseases, including a form of severe anaemia, are linked to defective telomerase, resulting in damaged cells.
Yet there is also a darker and more complex side to this picture.
Many experts initially speculated that ageing could be pinned to telomere shortening, but the process has emerged as something that encompasses different factors, as well as telomeres.
In addition, high telomerase also helps cancer, enabling its cells to replicate endlessly and achieve what scientists call "cellular immortality."
Finding ways of blocking this machinery through "telomerase inhibitors" is one of the most eagerly explored areas of cancer research. AFP