Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka awarded Nobel chemistry prize

Discovery of class of cell receptors could pave way for 'better drugs with fewer side effects'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 4:21am


US chemists Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka won the Nobel Prize yesterday for identifying a class of cell receptor, yielding vital insights into how the body works at the molecular level.

The award is for chemistry, but the big beneficiary is medical research, the Nobel committee said. The pair were honoured for discovering a key component of cells called G-protein-coupled receptors and mapping how they work on the body.

The receptors stud the surface of cells, sensitising them to light, flavour, smells and body chemicals such as adrenaline and enabling cells to communicate with each other. About 1,000 of these kinds of receptor are known to exist throughout the body. They are essential not just for physiological processes but also for the response to drugs.

Understanding the receptors provides the tools for "better drugs with fewer side effects", Nobel committee member Sven Lidin said.

Lefkowitz, 69, is a professor of biomedicine and biochemistry at Duke University in North Carolina, while Kobilka, born in 1955, is a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

In a teleconference with Swedish journalists, Lefkowitz admitted he had not heard the phone ring to get the famous piece of news.

"I was fast asleep and the phone rang. I did not hear it. I must share with you that I wear ear plugs to sleep, and so my wife gave me an elbow: 'phone for you.' And there it was. A total shock and surprise," he said.

Lefkowitz admitted his day had been thrown out of whack.

"As yet we've told nobody," he said. "I plan to go to the office. I was going to get a haircut, but I'm afraid [that] will probably have to be postponed. I think it'll be a crazy day at the office."

Kobilka told Swedish news agency TT that he was also awakened in the middle of the night at his home in California.

Asked if he would be able to fall back to sleep, he replied: "I don't think so. I'm still very surprised, they called me just half an hour ago, but now it is starting to slowly sink in," he said.

Kobilka said he had not yet decided what he would do with his half of the 8 million Swedish kronor (HK$9.3 million) prize.

"I don't know. I have two children and hopefully they will inherit some of it. I'm not really used to my work being recognised like this," he said.