Maria A. Blasco obtained her PhD in 1993 for her research on viral DNA polymerases at the Centro de Biología Molecular "Severo Ochoa" (CSIC-UAM, Madrid, Spain) under the supervision of M. Salas. That same year, Blasco joined the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (New York,USA) as a Postdoctoral Fellow under the leadership of C. W. Greider. In 1997 she returned to Spain to start her own research Group at the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología (CNB, CSIC) in Madrid. She joined the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre CNIO in 2003 as Head of the Telomeres and Telomerase group and Director of the Molecular Oncology Programme. She has served as CNIO Vice Director (2005-2011) and is CNIO Director since July 2011.
Among other honours, Maria A. Blasco has received the Josef Steiner Cancer Research, Rey Jaime I, Körber European Science, Alberto Sols, and Fundación Lilly Precilinical Research Awards. She has also been the recipient of the Spanish National Santiago Ramón y Cajal Research Award in Biology (2010). Blasco has also been awarded the EMBO Gold Medal, she is an elected EMBO member and served on its Council from 2008 to 2011. She was elected Fellow of the Royal Academy of Pharmacy of Spain in 2014 and awarded a Doctorate Honoris Causa from Universidad Carlos III (Madrid, Spain) in 2014.
Maria A. Blasco has made key contributions to demonstrate the importance of telomerase in disease and longevity. When Blasco started working on telomeres in the mid 90’s it was known that telomeres shortened with ageing in humans but whether this was causal of ageing and of age-associated diseases like cancer, or a determinant of organismal longevity was completely unknown. Her work has been central to demonstrating telomere shortening as one of the principal molecular pathways leading to ageing and ageing-associated diseases (including cancer), as well as to demonstrate the importance of telomerase and telomere length in longevity.
Blasco has produced an array of scientific contributions over the last 20 years, which are summarised below. Of these achievements five are undoubtedly the most salient ones:
- The demonstration that telomere shortening is causal of ageing and ageing associated diseases (she made seminal contributions using the telomerase deficient mouse model generated by her by when she was a postdoctoral student with Dr. Carol W. Greider),
- The discovery that short telomeres act as potent tumour suppressors in the absence of telomerase. A seminal paper in 2000 showing that telomerase-deficient mice were resistant to chemically induced cancer constituted the first clear demonstration that short telomeres in the absence of telomerase can block cancer,
- The pioneering finding that telomerase activation in the context of cancer-free mice delays ageing, reduces the incidence of age-associated pathologies, and increases longevity (first demonstrated in any organism by Blasco´s Group),
- The development of telomerase-based gene therapies effective in delaying ageing and age-related diseases (in 2012) and in the prevention and treatment of heart failure after myocardial infraction (in 2014) without increasing cancer incidence. This is very relevant from a translational point of view; Blasco has attained for the first time a therapeutic strategy that without producing cancer reactivates telomerase to delay ageing and to prevent age-associated diseases (i.e., heart failure),
- The discovery of the existence of a novel RNA component at the telomeres. Blasco´s group discovered that telomeric repeats are transcribed, that telomeric RNAs are potent telomerase-inhibitors and that their expression is altered in cancer. She later provided further support to the notion that telomeric RNAs are relevant to both cancer and ageing and also identified chromosome 18 as the genomic origin of telomeric RNAs in mice.
In summary, Blasco has provided proof of principle that telomere shortening with ageing owing to telomerase deficiency in the adult organism is one of the principal causes of ageing and disease, and that telomerase re-activation is sufficient to delay ageing and ageing-related diseases and to increase longevity. Her work has established telomere length and telomerase activity as one of the Hallmarks of Ageing.