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Today, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to two Americans. They won for their work on sensors, or receptors, that sit on the surface of cells. The receptors make cells respond to chemical signals that your body releases when you react to the outside world. Maybe you were frightened by a sudden noise, or you just smell a tantalizing cup of coffee. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains how these receptors work, and why they're so important to medicine.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Shortly after they called the winners to tell them the news, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences held a press conference this morning. They had one of the winners on the phone, to talk to reporters. Robert Lefkowitz said when the fateful call came, he didn't even hear the phone ring because he was sound asleep and wearing earplugs.
ROBERT LEFKOWITZ: And so my wife gave me an elbow - call for you. And there it was, a total shock and surprise.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He said he had been planning an ordinary day at the office.
LEFKOWITZ: I was going to get a haircut but...
LEFKOWITZ: ...which, if you could see me, you would see is quite a necessity. But I'm afraid that'll probably have to be postponed.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Reached by phone later on, he said he had canceled his haircut. His wife told him, don't worry; slightly disheveled is a good look, for a Nobel Prize winner. His day had been a nonstop frenzy of phone calls - not just reporters, but friends and also, his five adult children, who were duly impressed.
LEFKOWITZ: I was actually taken aback by how excited they were. I mean, not that I wouldn't think they'd be excited that Dad won the Nobel Prize, but they just seemed like, over the moon.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lefkowitz is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Duke University Medical Center. He started his research back in the early 1970s, hunting for receptors on the surface of cells that are sensitive to the fight-or-flight hormone, adrenaline.
LEFKOWITZ: There was tremendous skepticism as to whether they existed at all. And early in my career, that was the biggest obstacle, or hurdle, I faced - was a lot of pushback; that, you know, you can't do this. These receptors aren't really things you can study. They're just kind of some vague something.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Work in his lab showed how wrong that view was. His group found the gene for a receptor, and revealed that it was part of a large family of receptors called G protein-coupled receptors. Lots of common medications act on these receptors; everything from antihistamines to beta blockers. So understanding how the receptors work at the molecular level, could help scientists design better drugs.
LEFKOWITZ: It is amazing to me, to watch over the 40 or so years of my career how this field has grown and grown - and exploded. And it's now a huge, huge field. I mean, I have to be honest; I can't keep up with all the different ramifications anymore.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lefkowitz is sharing the Nobel Prize with a close colleague who once worked in his lab. Brian Kobilka is now at Stanford University School of Medicine. Kobilka spent years trying to get a detailed picture of one of these receptors in action; to show exactly how it passes a signal from the outside of the cell, to a protein inside the cell. This seemed so impossible that at times, his lab struggled to get funding. But just last year, he announced that they had done it. Chuck Sanders is a biochemist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
CHUCK SANDERS: I was in China about a year and a half ago, where he presented this work for the very first time, at a meeting. And there was just a hush of awe, in the audience, when he flashed the structure up on the screen. It was a really, really major accomplishment.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sanders says this kind of scientific feat isn't luck.
SANDERS: He was only able to do that because he had basically devoted his life to studying these receptors. And it was his knowledge of these receptors that led to the technical breakthroughs, that led to that structure.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Reached by cellphone a few hours after he'd been told he won the Nobel, Kobilka sounded kind of stunned.
BRIAN KOBILKA: I'm still a little in - a little bit in disbelief. But I'm pretty sure this isn't dream anymore.
KOBILKA: I guess I have to - I guess it's real.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says when the call from Sweden woke him up, he knew it couldn't be some kind of practical joke. There were just too many people on the line, all congratulating him, with very convincing Swedish accents.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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