STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Nearly a half-century after his father was awarded a Nobel Prize, a Stanford University professor won his own Wednesday for groundbreaking research into how cells read their genes, fundamental work that could help lead to new therapies.
Discoveries by Roger D. Kornberg, 59, have helped set the stage for developing drugs to fight cancer, heart disease and other illnesses, experts said.
At a press conference, Kornberg said the immediate application of his work is in making better antibiotics for diseases such as tuberculosis.
"There will be specific cures for several diseases in the next decade," he said.
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He said several pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs based on his research, but he declined to be more specific other than to mention cancer therapy.
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 prize was given to just one person was in 1999.
Kornberg's father, Arthur, shared the 1959 Nobel medicine prize for studies of how genetic information is transferred from one DNA molecule to another.
Arthur Kornberg, now 88, told reporters that the details of his son's work are beyond him, "but I certainly admire it from a distance.... I've been waiting for this event for a long time, and I'm just grateful, and so is my family, that I'm still around when it happened."
The Kornbergs are the sixth father and son to both win Nobel Prizes.
One father and daughter — Pierre Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie — won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry, respectively. Marie Curie — Irene's mother and Pierre's wife — won two Nobel prizes, for chemistry and physics.
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.
Transcription lets genes specify what proteins a cell produces. In this process, information from genes is used to create 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 extremely detailed pictures of messenger RNA molecules being created, a process that resembles building a chain link by link.
"In an ingenious manner Kornberg has managed to freeze the construction process of RNA half-way through," the Nobel committee said. That let him capture the process of transcription in full flow, which is "truly revolutionary," the committee said.
Kornberg's major 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.
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.
Danny Reinberg, a biochemistry professor at the New York University School of Medicine who studies how gene activity is regulated, agreed that Kornberg deserved the prize.
But he said other scientists who made discoveries about how genes are turned on and off should have been named to share it. He said he was "very sad and disappointed" that they were excluded.
Still, while others have made key contributions to parts of the overall field of transcription, the wide-ranging breadth of Kornberg's contributions "made it clear that he warranted this award," said Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University professor who studies transcription.
"Discussion ... has focused on who might share it," Ebright said, "not whether he would receive it."
Kornberg said the field of transcription research "extends far beyond our laboratory.... Our work could not have happened without the benefit of many discoveries made elsewhere."
Asked if he thought the Nobel committee should have included other scientists in the prize, Kornberg replied, "So many people could have shared in it that probably they were left with no alternative but to award it to one person."
Kornberg is the fifth American to win a Nobel prize this year.
On Monday, the medicine prize went 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.
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.
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.