McGill grad nabs Nobel in medicine

Novle Prize in medicine winner Jack Szostak. Photo by Jussi Puikkonen, courtesy of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Brilliant student showed promise at a young age

By Doug Sweet

He got into McGill in 1968 at the age of 15. Four years, two scholarships and a botany prize later, Jack Szostak had graduated with a BSc in biology.

This week, he capped a remarkable academic career with a Nobel Prize in medicine, shared with two other American researchers.

Szostak, who was born in London, England, but was raised in Montreal’s West Island, won the prestigious prize for research that showed how organisms rely on a particular enzyme to protect themselves from losing genetic material during cell division. Later studies linked this enzyme to cancer and aging-related maladies. Normally the enzyme, telomerase, gradually shuts down as a body ages; when it runs amok, cancer can result.

Szostak, who went on to a PhD at Cornell, is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School. He shares the prize with Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and Carol Greider of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“On behalf of McGill, I wish to extend our heartfelt congratulations to Dr. Szostak, and the other recipients, on this singular achievement in such a vital field of research,” McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum said. “We are always encouraged when one of our graduates achieves such a notable honour. Dr. Szostak’s work has advanced our understanding of how cells work and this prestigious award adds to his prominent reputation as a superb researcher and scientist.”

Howard Bussey, an Emeritus professor in Biology, knew Szostak as a graduate student and a post-doctoral fellow.

“It was always clear that he was pretty clever,” Bussey said. “I’m delighted to see that it all worked out for him.”

Szostak was, in fact, a brilliant student, who entered McGill at an impossibly young age and was awarded a McGill University Scholarship and the Walter W. Ross III Memorial Scholarship in 1971, as well as the Penhallow Prize in Botany in 1972.

He joins four other McGill alumni who have been awarded a Nobel prize:

• Rudolph Marcus, BSc’43, PhD’46, received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his theory of electron transfer.

• David Hubel, BSc’47, MDCM’51, was co-recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his groundbreaking work on visual perception.

• American particle physicist Val Fitch, BEng’48, was co-recipient of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics for an experiment conducted in 1964 that disproved the long-held theory that particle interaction should be indifferent to the direction of time.

• Endocrinologist Andrew Victor Schally, BSc’55, PhD’59, DSc’79, was the co-recipient of the 1977 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his research on hormones.