Nobel winner follows in his father's footsteps

Stanford professor Roger Kornberg takes the Nobel Prize in chemistry. In 1959, his dad won for medicine.

Published October 5, 2006

NEW YORK - 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.

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.

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.

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.