Two Americans won the Nobel Prize in chemistry yesterday for studies of how human cells 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 prizewinning 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."
Kobilka, 57, worked for Lefkowitz at Duke before transferring to Stanford University School of Medicine, where he is now a professor.
Lefkowitz, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, said he was fast asleep when the Nobel committee called, and didn't hear the phone because he was wearing ear plugs. So his wife picked up.
"She said, 'There's a call here for you from Stockholm,' " Lefkowitz said. "I knew they ain't calling to find out what the weather is like in Durham."
Kobilka said he found out around 2:30 a.m., after the Nobel committee called his home twice. When he picked up the phone the second time, he spoke to five members of the committee, he said.
"They passed the phone around and congratulated me," Kobilka said. "I guess they do that so you actually believe them. When one person calls you, it can be a joke. But when five people with convincing Swedish accents call you, then it isn't a joke."
He said he would put his half of the $1.2 million award toward retirement or "pass it on to my kids."
The academy said it was long a mystery how cells interact with their environment and adapt to situations, such as when they react to adrenaline by increasing blood pressure and making the heart beat faster. It was suspected that cells had a receptor for hormones and other substances, but scientists 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 there was a whole family of receptors that look alike -- a family now called G-protein-coupled receptors.
Since then, scientists have built up detailed knowledge about how those receptors work and how they are regulated.