Two US scientists share Nobel chemistry prize

10 Oct 2012

Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka, joint winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Individual images via Wikipedia

Two US scientists, Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka, have been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their studies of G-protein-coupled receptors that enable the body’s cells to sense and react to external signals.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded Lefkowitz and Kobilka for their “groundbreaking discoveries” that have uncovered the inner workings of G-protein-coupled receptors, thus paving the way for scientists to come up with better medicines.

According to the Nobel Prize committee, about a thousand genes code for such G-protein-coupled receptors for light, flavour, odour, adrenalin, histamine, dopamine and serotonin.

“About half of all medications achieve their effect through G-protein-coupled receptors,” said the committee.

Lefkowitz works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Kobilka, meanwhile, works at Stanford University School of Medicine in California. The two Nobel laureates will now share 8m crown (€930,000) equally between them.

In 1968, Lefkowitz began using radioactivity to trace cells’ receptors. By attaching an iodine isotope to certain hormones, the Nobel committee said he and his team unveiled several receptors, among those a receptor for adrenalin.

Then, in the Eighties, Kobilka joined the team and worked on isolating the gene that codes for the β-adrenergic receptor from the human genome. The Nobel committee said that when the researchers analysed the gene, they discovered there is a whole family of receptors that look alike and function in the same manner.

“The studies by Lefkowitz and Kobilka are crucial for understanding how G-protein-coupled receptors function. Furthermore, in 2011, Kobilka achieved another breakthrough; he and his research team captured an image of the β-adrenergic receptor at the exact moment that it is activated by a hormone and sends a signal into the cell. This image is a molecular masterpiece – the result of decades of research,” said the Nobel committee.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic