Brian K. Kobilka, M.D. ’81, professor of molecular and cellular physiology and of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in October. 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). Their work has contributed to improved understanding of the ways cells sense and respond to their environment—almost half of all medications achieve their effects through GPCRs.
Lefkowitz began using radio-actively labeled hormones to identify their receptors at Duke in 1968, and soon discovered the ß-adrenergic receptor, which binds adrenaline on the cell surface and sets off a biochemical cascade inside the cell. Kobilka joined Lefkowitz’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow in the 1980s.
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 its cell. In announcing the prize, the Nobel committee declared, “This image is a molecular masterpiece—the result of decades of research.”