Nobel Prize In Chemistry Awarded To Two US Scientists
October 10, 2012

Nobel Prize In Chemistry Awarded To Two US Scientists

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Groundbreaking research into how the protein receptors of cells detect and respond to external signals -- work that could lead to the development of better drugs to combat cancer and diabetes -- has earned two US scientists the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Sixty-nine year old Robert Lefkowitz, a professor at Duke University Medical Center, and 57-year-old Brian Kobilka, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, were jointly awarded the distinction from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today (October 10) for their work, which discovered the processes by which the G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) allowed cells to respond to chemical signals.

"I must share with you that I wear earplugs and so my wife gave me an elbow, 'call for you', and there it was: a total shock and surprise, as I'm sure many before me have experienced," Lefkowitz told BBC News. "I'm thinking this is going to be a very, very hectic day. I was going to get a haircut -- which if you could see me is quite a necessity -- but I'm afraid that'll have to be postponed."

According to Patrick Lannin and Alistair Scrutton of Reuters, Kobilka said that he initially believed the phone call originating from Stockholm was either a wrong number or a crank call. "Then it rang again," he told the reporters in a telephone interview. "You get congratulated by these members of the Swedish committee and things happen pretty fast."

The committee chairman, Lund University Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, told Reuters that Lefkowitz's and Kobilka's research into the structure and function of GPCRs "will provide us with the tools to make better drugs with fewer side effects," and Oxford University Molecular Biophysics Professor Mark Sansom dubbed it "the holy grail of membrane protein research."

The receptors have been linked to an array of different types of diseases, and are relied upon by the body for a plethora of different biological functions, according to Lannin and Scrutton. However, it had been difficult to develop new drugs that would target them because scientists lacked specific information about how they operated, and how they caused cells to react under different circumstances.

In the 1980s, Lefkowitz used radioactivity to discover the various receptors, including those linked to adrenaline, and discovered the family of receptors now known as GPCRs. Then last year, Kobilka led a team which captured for the first time an image of adrenaline at the exact moment when it is first activated by a hormone and sends a signal into the body's cell. Combined, their efforts could have a long-lasting, widespread impact on medicine.

"GPCRs are linked to a wide range of diseases, since they play a central role in many biological functions in the body, but developing new drugs to target them accurately has been difficult because of a lack of fundamental understanding as to how they function," Lannin and Scrutton said. "Experts say the work of the Nobel Prize winners has opened the door to making better medicines“¦Drugs targeting GPCRs have potential in treating illnesses involving the central nervous system, heart conditions, inflammation and metabolic disorders."

"This ground-breaking work spanning genetics and biochemistry has laid the basis for much of our understanding of modern pharmacology as well as how cells in different parts of living organisms can react differently to external stimulation," Mark Downs, chief executive of the UK's Society of Biology, said in a statement.

Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, president of the American Chemical Society, told the Associated Press that the award -- and the $1.2 million prize that comes with it -- was presented to Lefkowitz and Kobilka because "they both have made great contributions to our understanding of health and disease. This is going to help us a great deal to develop new pharmaceuticals, new medicines for combating disease."