Chemistry Nobel Goes To Scientists Who Studied Body's Receptors : The Two-Way Because about half of all drugs act on the receptors that let humans sense their environment, the scientists' work has been incredibly important for the development of pharmaceuticals.
NPR logo Chemistry Nobel Goes To Scientists Who Studied Body's Receptors

Chemistry Nobel Goes To Scientists Who Studied Body's Receptors

Americans Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka have been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their "groundbreaking discoveries" about the "fine-tuned system of interactions between billions of cells" in the human body, the Nobel Prize committee announced this morning.

This year's winners of the Chemistry Nobel: Robert Lefkowitz (left) and Brian Kobilka. hide caption

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This year's winners of the Chemistry Nobel: Robert Lefkowitz (left) and Brian Kobilka.

On Morning Edition, NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce said the scientists' work has been "hugely important" because as they have unraveled the structure of the body's "G-protein-coupled receptors," that has helped researchers see the receptors in action. And because "about half of all pharmaceuticals act on receptors," understanding how they work is important when treating diseases.

According to the Nobel committee:

"For a long time, it remained a mystery how cells could sense their environment. Scientists knew that hormones such as adrenalin had powerful effects: increasing blood pressure and making the heart beat faster. They suspected that cell surfaces contained some kind of recipient for hormones. But what these receptors actually consisted of and how they worked remained obscured for most of the 20th Century.

"Lefkowitz started to use radioactivity in 1968 in order to trace cells' receptors. He attached an iodine isotope to various hormones, and thanks to the radiation, he managed to unveil several receptors, among those a receptor for adrenalin: β-adrenergic receptor. His team of researchers extracted the receptor from its hiding place in the cell wall and gained an initial understanding of how it works.

"The team achieved its next big step during the 1980s. The newly recruited Kobilka accepted the challenge to isolate the gene that codes for the β-adrenergic receptor from the gigantic human genome. His creative approach allowed him to attain his goal. When the researchers analyzed the gene, they discovered that the receptor was similar to one in the eye that captures light. They realized that there is a whole family of receptors that look alike and function in the same manner.

"Today this family is referred to as G-protein–coupled receptors. About a thousand genes code for such receptors, for example, for light, flavour, odour, adrenalin, histamine, dopamine and serotonin. About half of all medications achieve their effect through G-protein–coupled receptors.

"The studies by Lefkowitz and Kobilka are crucial for understanding how G-protein–coupled receptors function. Furthermore, in 2011, Kobilka achieved another break-through; 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."

Lefkowitz, born in 1943, does his work at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Duke University Medical Center. Kobilka, born in 1955, is at Stanford University's School of Medicine. The men will share an award worth about $1.2 million.

Tuesday, the Nobel in Physics was awarded to Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the U.S. for their work on the "fundamental interactions between light particles and matter." On Monday, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to John B. Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, England, and Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University in Japan. They discovered that mature and specialized cells "can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body," according to the Nobel committee.

The remaining Nobel prizes and the days they will be announced:

— Literature on Thursday.

— Peace on Friday.

— Economics on Monday.