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. Experts say the prize-winning work and subsequent research is helping scientists as they try to improve current drugs and develop new ones.
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.
The two prize winners “have been at the forefront of this entire scientific journey,” the Nobel committee said.