Duo shares Nobel chemistry honors
CHICAGO — For some scientists, winning a Nobel Prize marks the end of a long and successful career.
But the work, in a sense, is just beginning for newly minted Nobel laureates in chemistry Brian Kobilka, 57, of Stanford University, and his mentor, Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, 69, of Duke University Medical Center.
“There is still a lot to do,” Dr. Kobilka said in his home in Palo Alto, Calif., where he learned of his prize early Wednesday. “There is a lot to do.”
In research spanning four decades, the scientists working separately and together have helped characterize the exact structure of an important class of proteins known as G-protein-coupled receptors or GPCRs, which serve as a main conduit for chemicals to get past a cell’s membrane and be taken up by a cell.
Roughly 1,000 human genes carry genetic codes for the receptors, which affect a variety of functions: from the beating of the heart to the workings of the brain and even how cells in the nose detect odors.
A subset of these receptors, some several hundred, respond to hormones and neurotransmitters in the body, and these have been targets for drug discovery, in many cases even before researchers knew these receptors existed.
About 40 percent of drugs use these receptors or doors to get inside of cells.
The problem is that drugs often act on more than one receptor, so they have side effects.
“We hope the more we know about the structure of these proteins, the more we’ll be able to develop safer, more effective drugs,” Kobilka said.
Lefkowitz set out in the 1970s to prove these receptors existed and that they could be studied, cloned and manipulated to develop new drugs.
Kobilka, who worked in Lefkowitz’s lab in the 1980s, extended that research by helping define the exact crystal structure of every atom of these receptors at a molecular level — something that had eluded researchers.
“Their findings have shone a light onto the staggeringly complex world of how hormones, neurotransmitters and drugs control cellular function and opened the door to the development of new therapeutics with potential to treat a vast array of diseases,” said Bernadette Byrne of Imperial College London.