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Vol. LXIV, No. 22
October 26, 2012

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Two NIH Grantees Win 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to NIH grantees Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University Medical Center (and a former NIH clinical associate) and Dr. Brian K. Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the researchers had made groundbreaking discoveries on an important family of receptors known as G-protein-coupled receptors.

Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz

Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz takes part in the Nobel symposium “3M: Machines, Molecules and Mind” in Stockholm, Sweden, May 2011. He was a clinical associate at NIH from 1968 to 1970.

Photo: Orasisfoto

“About half of all medications, including beta blockers, antihistamines and various kinds of psychiatric medications, act through these receptors,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. “NIH is proud to have supported this work, which began as basic science and ultimately led to dramatic medical advances.”

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute began supporting Lefkowitz in 1974; it has provided almost $15 million in support. As a clinical associate in the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases from 1968 to 1970, Lefkowitz laid the foundation for his studies of adrenergic receptors. He and colleagues Dr. Ira Pastan of NCI and Drs. Jesse Roth and William Pricer demonstrated directly for the first time the existence of hormone receptors on target tissues, with the measurement of ACTH receptors on adrenal tissues.

This seminal work showed the essential role of cell surface receptors in activating cells and showed that there are rapid changes in the number and avidity of receptors in response to changes in the environment and in disease states. The concept of cell surface receptors represented an entirely new way of understanding the action of hormones on target cells. Lefkowitz joined the faculty at Duke in 1973.
Dr. Brian K. Kobilka

Dr. Brian K. Kobilka

Photo: Stanford University

Kobilka has received more than $14 million in support from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NHLBI and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences since 1990.

He also serves as a reviewer for the Center for Scientific Review and was preparing to go to a CSR review meeting right before he learned of winning the Nobel Prize. Though he couldn’t attend in person due to all the excitement, Kobilka nevertheless participated via phone so as not to disrupt or slow down the review process.

“NINDS is pleased to have supported the basic scientific achievements recognized by the Nobel committee,” said Dr. Story Landis, NINDS director. “Dr. Kobilka’s research has shed light on cell-to-cell signaling in the nervous system and has provided exceptional insights into their molecular underpinnings.”

“The groundbreaking research by Dr. Lefkowitz and Dr. Kobilka opened the door to understanding how blood pressure and heart rate are regulated in response to hormones such as adrenaline,” said NHLBI director Dr. Gary Gibbons. “It led to the development of beta-adrenergic receptor blockers that treat such conditions as high blood pressure, angina and coronary heart disease. The NHLBI is proud to have supported these researchers, whose work continues to yield promising insights into improving public health.”

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