Brian K. Kobilka, M.D., a 1981 graduate of the medical school and professor of molecular and cellular physiology and of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, has won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He shares the prize with Robert J. Lefkowitz, M.D., of Duke University Medical Center, for their work on sensors lodged in the cell membrane known as G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs).
Kobilka and Lefkowitz’s work has contributed greatly to our understanding of the ways cells sense and respond to their environment—about half of all medications achieve their effects through GPCRs.
At Duke in 1968, Lefkowitz began using radioactively labeled hormones to identify their receptors, and soon unveiled the ß-adrenergic receptor, which binds adrenaline at the cell surface and sets off a biochemical cascade inside the cell.
In the 1980s, Kobilka joined Lefkowitz’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow. Together, Kobilka and Lefkowitz isolated the gene that codes for the ß-adrenergic receptor. After noticing the gene’s similarity to a light-sensitive receptor in the retina, they found that both were members of a large family of receptors, now recognized as GPCRs, that play a role in a variety of vital functions from seeing to digestion to memory.
In 2011, Kobilka’s team captured an image of the ß-adrenergic receptor at the moment that it is activated and sends a signal into the cell. In announcing the prize, the Nobel committee declared, “This image is a molecular masterpiece–the result of decades of research.”