UI grad nominated for honorary degree

A Nobel Prize-winning geneticist considered a pioneer in the biotechnology industry has been nominated to receive an honorary degree from the University of Illinois this spring.

The campus senate on Monday approved an honorary doctorate for UI alumnus Phillip Sharp, co-founder of Biogen and now a professor at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. UI trustees must approve the award, which would be granted at the May 17 UI commencement.

Sharp earned his doctorate in chemistry at the UI's Urbana campus after attending Union College in Barbourville, Ky., as an undergraduate.

He was nominated by Prof. James Morrissey, acting head of the UI's biochemistry department, who cited Sharp for his "groundbreaking research in biochemistry, for his exceptional scientific leadership, and for his pioneering achievements in the biotechnology industry."

Sharp's co-discovery of RNA splicing and RNA expression in the 1970s has been described as "one of the seminal discoveries in the biological sciences." RNA stands for ribonucleic acid, an important molecule that is involved in protein synthesis and sometimes in the transmission of genetic information.

In 1977, Sharp and Richard J. Roberts discovered split genes, which led to the discovery of RNA splicing. They received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their landmark research.

Sharp's research also contributed to the foundation of RNAi (an RNA-dependent regulatory mechanism that serves as an on/off switch for gene expression), for which one of his students, Andrew Fire, won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Morrison said.

Sharp was instrumental in the creation of one of the first biotech companies, Genentech Inc., and worked with a team of researchers to establish Biogen in 1978. Biogen, which merged with IDEC Pharmaceuticals in 2003 to form Biogen Idec Inc., develops drugs for neurological disorders, autoimmune disorders and cancer.

Sharp was named a member of the National Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, as well as a Foreign Fellow of the Royal Society of the United Kingdom. In 2004, he was awarded the National Medal of Science.

Prof. Jeremy Tyson, who chairs the honorary degrees committee, said the panel received "many enthusiastic letters of support" for Sharp.

Last fall the senate approved two other nominees for honorary degrees: Professor George Andrews, math professor at Penn State University and an internationally recognized number theorist; and Narayana Murthy, executive chairman of Infosys Ltd., one of the largest information technology companies in India.

UI trustees approved Andrews in November. But Murthy couldn't attend the May 17 ceremony, so he had to decline, said campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler. Candidates must accept honorary degrees in person, she said.

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