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Nobel winner to accept Pitt award

| Thursday, Oct. 5, 2006

Super Bowl champions head to Disney World to celebrate their victories, but newly crowned Nobel laureates apparently make their way to Pittsburgh.

Stanford University scientist Roger D. Kornberg planned to deliver a lecture this morning at University of Pittsburgh's annual showcase of science and technology -- Science 2006: Feel the Power -- where he will become the 11th Nobel laureate to also receive the school's prestigious Dickson Prize in Medicine.

Kornberg, 59, was roused from slumber at his California home early Wednesday by a telephone call from The Swedish Academy of Sciences informing him that he won the 2006 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his fundamental studies of how cells use the information stored in genes to make proteins.

Even after winning the world's biggest prize in science, skipping the talk and ceremony at Pitt wasn't an option, Kornberg said.

"I was much moved by the award of the Dickson Prize, as it represented a selection by a committee of distinguished scientists at the University of Pittsburgh who I greatly respect," said Kornberg during a conference call with reporters. "I will absolutely make the trip to Pittsburgh to accept that award with gratitude and humility."

Kornberg's $1.36 million award yesterday completed the first American sweep of Nobel science prizes since 1983. It also is a family affair. His father, Arthur Kornberg, 88, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1959 for studies of how genetic information is transferred from one DNA molecule to another.

"I'm disappointed that it was so long in coming," said the elder Kornberg, about his son's honor, which will be bestowed by Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

It is the sixth time in Nobel history that a father and a son have been awarded prizes. One father and daughter have also been so honored.

Kornberg's prize-winning research showed how cells copy their DNA blueprint onto messenger RNA that can be used to make proteins.

Illnesses such as cancer and heart disease often are linked to disturbances in this vital process called transcription. Since gene copying helps to explain how a cell becomes a nerve or muscle or blood cell, understanding transcription also might be key to developing stem-cell therapies.

Kornberg is best known for creating crystals of a complicated, massive enzyme called RNA polymerase and other molecules responsible for transcription in a group of organisms that includes humans and other mammals. He used extremely bright X-rays to take a snapshot of this cellular machinery in full action, producing images so detailed that scientists can see individual atoms.

"It was a monumental achievement," said Pitt biology professor Karen Arndt, who will serve as Kornberg's faculty host today. "We knew what those molecules did, but no one knew what they looked like."

Prior to Kornberg's lecture at Pitt today, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and medical school Dean Dr. Arthur Levine will award him the bronze medal and $50,000 that accompany the Dickson Prize, which was established in 1969 by the estates of Pittsburgh-area physician Joseph Dickson and his wife, Agnes Fischer Dickson.

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About Science2006

Nobel laureate Roger D. Kornberg is scheduled to speak at 11 a.m. today at the University of Pittsburgh's Alumni Hall, on Fifth Avenue between Lytton and Tennyson avenues in Oakland.

The speech is part of the university's annual showcase of science and technology, Science2006: Feel the Power. The two-day event is free.

For more information, click here.

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