Nobel chemistry prize for cell receptors research
TWO AMERICAN doctors whose work over four decades has revealed how the body responds to the smells, sights, flavours and threats of the outside world have won this year’s Nobel prize in chemistry.
Robert Lefkowitz at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and Brian Kobilka at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, share science’s most prestigious award – and eight million Swedish kronor – for their discovery of molecular sensors called G-protein-coupled receptors or GPCRs.
The sensors take the form of proteins that act as gatekeepers between cells and the environment they live in. When a substance latches on to the outer part of a sensor protein, it causes it to change shape, triggering a response inside the cell.
Scientists now know of a whole family of GPCRs that detect hundreds of different substances in and around the body. Work on the receptors has underpinned decades of progress in medicine, with half of all pharmaceuticals acting on the proteins.
The huge variety of GPCRs allows individual organs in the body to react in different ways to the same stimulant. A surge of adrenaline through the body, for example, acts through GPCRs to make the heart race, the lungs heave, muscles contract and pupils widen. Without GPCRs, humans would not have the “fight-or-flight” response that is crucial for survival.
Speaking by phone to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences soon after the announcement, Dr Lefkowitz recalled the moment he heard of the award. “I was fast asleep and the phone rang but I didn’t hear it,” he said. “I wear ear plugs and my wife gave me an elbow and said there’s a call for you. And there it was, a total shock and surprise, as many before me have experienced.”
Asked about his plans for the day, he said: “I was going to get a haircut, which if you could see me you would see it is quite a necessity, but I’m afraid that will probably have to be postponed.”
In a statement from Stanford University, Dr Kobilka said: “I didn’t believe it at first, but after I spoke with about five people – they handed the phone around – with really convincing Swedish accents, I started to think it was for real.”
For many years, researchers knew that adrenaline and other substances produced their effects without entering cells, suggesting they must instead act through surface sensors. Drs Lefkowitz and Kobilka confirmed those suspicions and showed how the sensors worked. – (Guardian service)