HT THIS DAY: October 17, 1968 — Indian shares Nobel prize for medicine with 2 Americans
Stockholm- India-born Hargobind Khorana was today named co-winner of the 1968 Nobel prize for medicine and physiology with two other American nationals for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.
The other two are Robert Holley of Cornell University and Dr Marshall Nirenberg of the National Heart Institute, Bethesda, Maryland.
The citation said the three scientists, who will get a record cash value this year of $70,000 ( ₹5.25 lakhs), had worked independently, but their investigation converged towards the solution of a common problem.
Dr Khorana and Mr. Holley, who probed the structure of the genetic code, explained how it is used by the cell for the biosynthesis of proteins
Dr Khorana, 46 started his career as an organic chemist. During 1950-52 he worked with Nobel prize winner A. Todd in Cambridge, England, on building a complex biological substance, called nucleotides.
In the late 1950s, he was ready to take the next step, starting experiments to combine several nucleotides. His final aim was to be able to synthesize in the test tube nucleic acids containing a known sequence of nucleotides.
The synthetic nucleic acids he managed to produce made it possible for Dr Khorana to investigate the genetic (hereditary) code for all amino acids in all the details.
The Royal Caroline Institute of Medicine and Physiology, which took the decision to award the prize to the three scientists, said that Dr Nirenberg, 41, of New York, opened up this research area by a very simple but ingenious experiment By following up his breakthrough he could clarify the general character of the genetic code.
Dr Nirenberg, who heads the section for biochemistry and genetics at the Bethesda Institute, had received the National Medal of Science from President Johnson in 1965.
The Caroline Institute explained that the decoding of the genetic code, which Dr Nirenberg did, provides the key to a translation of one biological language into another. It translates the language of nucleid acids into the language of proteins, and thereby explains how the genes of cell direct the function of a cell.
Asked for an explanation in layman terms of what the awarded experiment meant, Prof Hugo Theorell, Swedish medicine prize winner in 1955, said: “This means that we suddenly have got to understand the alphabet of life as fat as heredity is concerned. Some illnesses result from misprints in this process. There could be something wrong with the haemoglobin (the red colouring of the blood corpuscles), but also with the enzymes (active proteins) , which could be constructed wrongly, something that is in the body prone to certain illnesses.”
“The three Nobel prize winners have not provided any remedy for such illnesses, but their great feat in research lies in that they have shown what it is we have to attack to combat such hereditary illnesses,” Prof Theorell said.
“You can say that the three winners independently have managed to break the genetic code, Dr Nirenberg providing the very key to its structure and Dr Khorana and Mr Holley by proving its structure in detail.” he added.
Dr Melvin Cohn of Salk Institute of Biochemical Research, California, who has closely worked with the Nobel Prize winner, Dr Hargovind Khorana, said in New Delhi today that if you ask any American student of elementary biochemistry he would tell you who Dr Khorana is.
Dr Cohn, who is on a lecture tour of India, said Dr Khorana was one of the only 500 members of the American National Academy of Sciences. ‘This is rare honour conferred on any American scientist.” he said.