LIVERMORE -- At a Feb. 11 lecture at the Bankhead Theater, Australian-born Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn was a bit like her native land's kangaroo.
Capable of traveling at 70 mph, the country's fastest animal is all speed and efficiency. And so was Blackburn, as she stunned a sizable audience with 70- -- OK, possibly 80- or 90-mph revelations as part of the Rae Dorough Speaker Series about her work in cancer research.
Named one of Time magazine's 100 "Most Influential People in the World" in 2007 and earning maverick points in 2004 after objecting to a "mum the message" moratorium on a scientific report (an act resulting in her being booted from the President's Council on Bioethics), Blackburn claimed to have been "a ruffian" since birth.
"I was a rebellious character, but I had opportunities to learn about science," she said, showing scenes from her childhood. "Intellectual enjoyment has sustained me through very rough times. That's what keeps scientists doing what they do."
To address the lecture's compelling question of "Why do we age?" and implications of "What can we do to slow aging down?" Blackburn posed questions of her own.
"What are telomeres and telomerase? And why should we care?" she asked.
When a scientist discusses a lifelong passion, mental leaps are common. Despite her unbridled enthusiasm, Blackburn reined it in enough to bring the less-informed (which was everyone in the theater) up to speed. Telomeres are the repeating DNA sequences capping the ends of chromosomes. The enzyme or "gel" Blackburn codiscovered, replenishes the telomere, but imperfectly.
"There was a real problem: with each replication, a loss from the ends occurred," Blackburn said, equating the "problem" to a fraying shoe lace.
Racing into obscurity with terms like "tetrahymena thermophila," which she said were immortal cells, Blackburn announced, "Now you know everything you need to know. it's not rocket science!"
Perhaps sensing the audience's senescence -- the deterioration of power due to aging -- she explained the impact of genetics, the environment and lifestyle on the "robustness" of telomeres. Short telomeres result in early death, cancers, lung and heart disease and diabetes. People with a genetic mutation reducing their telomeres are at an "enormously higher risk" of cancer.
"Fortunately, terrible mutations are rare, but they give us information," she said.
The information told scientists that diseases such as osteoarthritis and dementia are also linked to shorter telomeres.
"These associations don't prove causality, but the genetic information gave us a huge hint," Blackburn said.
Joining a large Kaiser study of 100,000 people, Blackburn said the collected data showed the highest chance of dying was predicted by being in the category with the shortest telomeres. And there was less dementia in long telomere subjects.
The "Goldilocks" end result of ongoing studies showed a frightening truth: "2X too much or 2X too little telomeres is oncogenic (cancer-causing)."
Chronic stress ages an organism, a study of caregiver mothers of chronically ill children showed. Also, sufferers of perceived or alzheimer caregiver stress, major-depression PTSD, domestic abuse and early life trauma victims have shortened telomeres. Even intrauterine stress exposure and low educational attainment factor in to the equation. One study, of cynical hostility levels in British civil servants, showed a top tier with noticeably shorter telomeres.
"See though, that medium (the same as low hostility) is just fine," Blackburn joked, suggesting a little hostility might be healthy in certain occupations.
Questions from the audience followed Blackburn's list of "remedies," which included not smoking, exercise and maintaining adequate levels of omega-3, sleep, mindfulness and meaning/purpose.
For Ashley Bowers, 14, a Livermore High School student interested in medicine and engineering, it was all good.
"I want to know how her research affects our lives. Sure, I'm the only girl in the engineering club, but we built a cannon that shoots T-shirts, so I'm cool with that."
An advocate of women in science, Blackburn would have been pleased to learn there's another "ruffian" in the making.