October 11, 2012 in Nation/World

U.S. scientists win Nobel for chemistry

Work on receptors has led to more effective medicines
Malcolm Ritter Associated Press
 

NEW YORK – Two Americans won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of how the cells in our bodies pick up signals as diverse as hormones, smells, flavors and light – work that is key to developing better medicines.

Those signals are received by specialized proteins on cell surfaces. Dr. Robert Lefkowitz and Dr. Brian Kobilka made groundbreaking discoveries about the inner workings of those proteins, mainly in the 1980s, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

The proteins are called G-protein-coupled receptors. Many of today’s drugs – maybe about half – act on these receptors, including beta blockers and antihistamines.

The receptors pick up signals outside a cell and relay a message to the interior.

“They work as a gateway to the cell,” Lefkowitz told a news conference in Stockholm by phone. “As a result, they are crucial … to regulate almost every known physiological process with humans.”

Lefkowitz, 69, is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

Kobilka, 57, worked for Lefkowitz at Duke before transferring to Stanford University School of Medicine in California, where he is now a professor.

The academy said it was long a mystery how cells interact with their environment and adapt to new situations, such as when they react to adrenaline by increasing blood pressure and making the heart beat faster.

Scientists suspected that cells had some type of receptor for hormones and other substances, but they couldn’t find any.

Lefkowitz managed to reveal receptors, such as one for adrenaline, and started to understand how that one works.

Kobilka, working with Lefkowitz, found the gene that tells the body how to make the adrenaline receptor, and it soon became clear that there was a whole family of receptors that look alike – a family that is now called G-protein-coupled receptors.

Since then, scientists have built up detailed knowledge about how those receptors work and how they are regulated.

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