Lefkowitz and Kobilka win 2012 Chemistry Nobel for GPCRs

Defending the Chemistry Nobel for “biology” – again.

I’m near-certain that this is the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry given to two MDs. (10:31 am EDT: I was wrong, as per commenter Jonny below. Peter Agre, MD, and Roderick MacKinnon, MD, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2003 for their work on aquaporins and other ion channels.)

Robert Lefkowitz, MD, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University Medical Center, and Brian Kobilka, MD, of Stanford University School of Medicine, will share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012. The award recognizes a lifetime of work, certainly for Lefkowitz, in elucidating the action of the central chemical signal transducers of the human body.

This is a chemistry prize, albeit a biological chemistry prize.

The prize is being given for discovering how the body’s most important chemicals communicate their own chemical signals from outside the cell to inside. Without G-protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs, our hearts would not beat, our lungs would not expand and contract, and our brains would be unable to regulate much of everything that runs in our bodies.

Moreover, the ubiquity of GPCRs have over history breathed tremendous life and stimulated innovation in chemistry to synthesize tools to modulate these receptors and thereby relieve human suffering. Chemists should revel in this prize – without G-protein coupled receptors, many chemists would not have been employed for the last few decades.

But I do agree that a case could be made for this prize to be given in Physiology or Medicine, particularly since GPCRs are central to physiology, “from plants to man.”

More later.

Feel free to vent your spleen in the comments below.

But do note that Derek Lowe, medicinal chemist and grand master of the chemblogosphere, has already decreed, “[M]y fellow chemists, cheer the hell up already.”

Disclosure: I hold an Adjunct Associate Professor appointment in the Duke University School of Medicine, Department of Medicine.



10:22 am EDT: Here’s an excellent 2011 C&EN article by Carmen Drahl that explains the relevance of GPCRs to chemistry. Cites Brian Kobilka’s work.

Carmen also wrote the C&EN Online article that appeared just a bit ago.



11:30 am EDT: Went up to Dr. Lefkowitz’s office at Duke where he was holed up doing telephone interviews before he heads down to the lab’s champagne reception.

Dr. Robert Lefkowitz exits his office to join his laboratory group for the traditional champagne reception as local paparazzi descend, 10 October 2012. Credit: David Kroll/CENtral Science.

Exuberance. Credit: David Kroll/CENtral Science

The Lefkowitz laboratory gathers. The overriding theme today was that Bob runs a very close but hardworking group and is an exemplary mentor. Credit: David Kroll/CENtral Science

The first of many. Credit: David Kroll/CENtral Science

They’ll never forget today and all their days in the Lefkowitz laboratory — past, present, and future. Credit: David Kroll/CENtral Science

Dr. Lefkowitz has been in Medicine (Cardiology) and Biochemistry at Duke for nearly 40 years. Duke’s blue-and-white runs deep for him. Credit: David Kroll/CENtral Science

“Okay, that’s ‘Dr. L-E-F…yeah, yeah, I got it.” At least, “Nobel” is correct. Credit: David Kroll/CENtral Science


See my next post for discussion of the 1:30 pm EDT news conference and background on Lefkowitz’s dependence on chemical tools to launch this research.


You didn’t think *I* was going to pass up the opportunity, did you??? Lefkowitz and his group transformed pharmacology — my doctoral field of study — dramatically increased the rate at which we could screen chemicals for biological activity (by replacing laborious whole organ systems with test-tube receptor-binding studies), and equally reduced the number of laboratory animals required to discover new drugs. I could go on… Credit: Ashley Yeager/Duke University News Office


Author: David Kroll

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  1. Provides a great example of the vital part chemistry plays in our understanding of modern biology, biochemistry, medicine etc etc.
    Also nicely validates why our Honours Biochemistry course has “Chemistry” as an essential school qualification (UK A level).

  2. I don’t get it. Chemistry traditionally deals with structure and function. It is the study of matter of all kinds at the molecular level. GPCRs fit this definition. Why would chemists complain when structure is awarded a prize? Plus, crystallographers have been awarded chemistry Nobels since 1962 (Perutz and Kendrew) and nobody seems to have complained then.

  3. Peter Agre and Roderick MacKinnon, Nobel laureates in Chemistry from 2002, are both MDs.

    • Superb correction, Jonny! And both have only MD degrees, no PhD among them. I should know this because Peter Agre turned me down for a job when he was at Duke.

      Or perhaps this is why he turned me down!

      btw, that prize was in 2003, not 2002.

  4. David,

    Thank you for your article; GPCR’s are very important molecules with fascinating designs and utility.

    This is a particularly noteworthy Chemistry Nobel that chemists should widely celebrate. What makes Chemistry the central science is its molecular focus; what makes Chemistry so fascinating to humans are the many varied and wonderful applications of fundamental chemistry.

    For a number of years, our Freshman General Chemistry program for science majors has had a dedicated lesson on GPCR’s and their mechanisms of action. This is followed by a series of lessons on the various medicines and drugs that modulate adrenergeric, muscarinic, opioid, dopamine, serotonin, and other GPCR receptor activity. Chemistry is an exciting field and GPCR’s are an important chemistry discovery.


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