STOCKHOLM, Sweden — American Roger D. Kornberg, whose father won a Nobel Prize a half-century ago, was awarded the prize in chemistry Wednesday for his studies of how cells take information from genes to produce proteins.
The work is important for medicine, because disturbances in that process are involved in illnesses like cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation. And learning more about the process is key to using stem cells to treat disease.
Kornberg, 59, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said medical benefits from his research have taken root.
“There are ... already many therapies, many drugs that are in development in trials or already available and there will be many more,” he said. “Significant benefits to human health are already forthcoming. I think there will be many many more.”
Kornberg’s $1.4 million award, following the Nobels for medicine and physics earlier this week, completes the first American sweep of the Nobel science prizes since 1983.
Americans have won or shared in all the chemistry Nobels since 1992. The last time the chemistry Nobel was given to just one person was in 1999.
Memories of 1959
Kornberg’s father, Arthur, shared the 1959 Nobel medicine prize with Severo Ochoa for studies of how genetic information is transferred from one DNA molecule to another.
“I have always been an admirer of his work and that of many others preceding me. I view them as truly giants of the last 50 years. It’s hard to count myself among them,” he said. “Something so remarkable as this can never be expected even though I was aware of the possibility. I couldn’t conceivably have imagined that it would become reality.”
The Kornbergs are the sixth father and son to both win Nobel Prizes. One father and daughter — Pierre Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie — won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry, respectively. Marie Curie — Irène’s mother and Pierre’s wife — won two Nobel prizes, for chemistry and physics.
Secrets of transcription
Roger Kornberg’s prize-winning work produced a detailed picture of what scientists call transcription in eukaryotes, the group of organisms that includes humans and other mammals, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its citation.
Kornberg shed light on how information is taken from genes and converted to molecules called messenger RNA. These molecules shuttle the information to the cells’ protein-making machinery. Proteins, in turn, serve as building blocks and workhorses of cells, vital to structure and functions.
Since 2000, Kornberg has produced actual pictures of messenger RNA molecules being created, a process that resembles building a chain link by link. The images are so detailed that individual atoms can be distinguished.
“In an ingenious manner Kornberg has managed to freeze the construction process of RNA halfway through,” the Nobel committee said. That let him capture the process of transcription in full flow, which is “truly revolutionary,” the committee said.
“Kornberg realized ... that to get to the chemical details of the (process) was fundamental,” said Anders Liljas, a member of the Nobel Committee in Chemistry. “Because if you don’t really see it on a molecular, atomic level, then you don’t really understand it.”
A decade of research
Kornberg’s breakthrough was published in 2001, remarkably recent for honoring by Nobel prize standards. But it followed a decade of researching yeast cells — whose similarity to human cells Kornberg called “perfectly astounding” — in search of a method to reveal the transcription process.
In those 10 years, Kornberg was allowed to continue his research without publishing a single major finding — a rare luxury in the world of science where funders often want instant results, said Hakan Wennerstrom, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
“I guess it helps to have a father who is a Nobel laureate,” Wennerstrom said. “But he also had previous publications of the highest level.”
Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Md., which has supported Kornberg’s work for more than 20 years, called Kornberg’s prize “fantastically well-deserved.”
The question of how information from genes is turned into RNA is fundamental, Berg said, and Kornberg “started working on it when it seemed somewhere between ambitious and crazy” to figure out the detailed structure and functioning of the cell’s machinery for doing the job, he said.
“The last five years have been really breathtaking in terms of the details of the structures that he’s been producing and what they’re revealing about the mechanism, as well as laying the groundwork for future studies of how gene regulation works,” Berg said.
Sizing up the prizes
Kornberg is the fifth American to win a Nobel prize this year. So far, all the prizes — medicine, physics and chemistry — have gone to Americans.
Last year’s Nobel laureates in chemistry were France’s Yves Chauvin and Americans Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock, who were honored for discoveries that let industry develop drugs and plastics more efficiently and with less hazardous waste.
Alfred Nobel, the wealthy Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite who endowed the prizes, left only vague guidelines for the selection committee.
In his will, he said the prize should be given to those who “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” and “have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement.”
This year’s Nobel announcements began Monday, with the Nobel Prize in medicine going to Americans Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello for discovering a powerful way to turn off the effect of specific genes, opening a potential new avenue for fighting diseases as diverse as cancer and AIDS. Their work dealt with how messenger RNA can be prevented from delivering its message to the protein-making machinery.
On Tuesday, Americans John C. Mather and George F. Smoot won the physics prize for work that helped cement the big-bang theory of how the universe was created and deepen understanding of the origin of galaxies and stars.
Each prize includes a check, a diploma and a medal, which will be awarded by Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.
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