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Category → History of science

Lefkowitz Nobel: “There’s a lot of love here”

How many of you could say this about your laboratory group?

In the hall outside the champagne reception for Bob Lefkowitz’s lab on Wednesday at Duke University Medical Center, I had a chance to catch up with Marti Delahunty, PhD. Delahunty is a research scientist in a connecting building but worked in the Lefkowitz group from 1998 until 2006.

This brief chat brings to mind Carmen Drahl’s post about one’s laboratory being your second family.


PIs, trainees, technicians, and administrators: Tell me if you’d be able to say the same about the environment of your laboratory.


HHMI and Duke Celebrate the Lefkowitz Chemistry Nobel

As discussed in my previous post, I took a personal day off from work yesterday to bask in the excitement of a university community celebrating a Nobel prize for one of its most beloved researchers, Dr. Robert “Bob” Lefkowitz, MD. He joined Duke in 1973 when, he says, “it was not the powerhouse it is today.”

Lefkowitz will share the prize with his former trainee, Brian Kobilka, MD, now at Stanford University.

I had the honor of joining his laboratory’s champagne celebration in the morning and the Duke University press conference in the early afternoon. (The full 47-minute press conference streamed live and is archived here at Duke.).

I live barely three miles from Duke and had no idea when or if I’d ever have the chance to be so close to such an event. The Lefkowitz prize is particularly meaningful to me as he is a biochemist physician-scientist who also considers himself a pharmacologist. So, I write this not so much as a journalist but rather — as Duke Research Communications Director Karl Leif Bates put it — a fan boy.

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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.


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Gurdon and Yamanaka share Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012

British scientist John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka (MD, PhD!), a Japanese scientist now at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this morning,  ”for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.”

John B. Gurdon. Credit: nobelprize.org, Creative Commons Attri 2.0 license.

Briefly, Gurdon and colleagues showed that the genetic information from a mature, differentiated cell still had the ability to program an undifferentiated embryonic cell to develop into an adult organism. That is, an embryonic cell contains the chemical signals to use adult DNA to drive development of a new organism.

The work was done with the frog, Xenopus laevis, and the technique came to be known as “nuclear transfer.” In colloquial terms, this is “cloning.” Current press reports are citing Gurdon’s work as occurring in 1962 but studies appear to have been published in Nature as early as 1958.

Christen Brownlee composed a superb summary of nuclear transfer for the Classics section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Gurdon’s work stemmed from 1952 experiments of Robert Briggs and Thomas J. King with another frog, Rana pipens. Briggs died in 1983 and King in 2000 and could not be recognized with the Nobel. This fact relieved the Nobel committee, in my opinion, from having to decide which scientist would have been awarded the potential third slot for the prize. (Addendum 7:18 am EDT): I suspect that some argument will arise in support of UW-Madison’s James A. Thomson for the third slot as the Science paper from his group came out concomitantly with Yamanaka’s Cell paper. 8:21 am: The Guardian’s Alok Jha just reminded me that I overlooked Takahashi and Yamanaka’s earlier Cell paper from 2006. However, C&EN’s Carmen Drahl is now reporting this 2001 TIME magazine cover with Thomson.)

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GSK Sells Off BC and Goody’s Powders

My friends, today is a dark day in the history of traditional, old-timey pharmacy in North Carolina.

According to Raleigh News & Observer reporter David Ranii, GlaxoSmithKline has sold their interest in two legendary analgesic powders and other over-the-counter products to Prestige Brands Holdings in Livingston, New York and Cody, Wyoming.

Cue the old Pace Picante advertisement about the competitor’s “Mexican” salsa made in New York City.

GSK even sold off Tagamet. Yes, Sir James Black’s cimetidine – the founding histamine H2 receptor antagonist for which Sir James shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Trudy Elion and George Hitchings.

Hell, they even sold Beano.

If you want to know what I’m talking about, seriously, please see my explainer from April on the rich North Carolina history of analgesic powders.

A shorter distillation of my post is this story at the North Carolina History Project.

The $660 million sales price will put $375 million directly in the hands of shareholders (*check TIAA-CREF mutual funds to see if I hold any $GSK).

Sorry, I can’t type anymore – I’ll be in mourning.

In fact, I think I need me a BC Powder.

NCCU Dinner with Discoverers: Chemist, Dr. Mansukh Wani

Dr. Mansukh Wani with NCCU pharmaceutical sciences master's students Edward Garner (left) and Adama Secka (right). Credit: DJ Kroll

The NCCU Eagles RISE program is a NIH/NIGMS research education program for which I serve as principal investigator at North Carolina Central University in Durham. When I moved to the Research Triangle area, I had the opportunity to work as a pharmacologist with the late Dr. Monroe Wall and Dr. Mansukh Wani, scientists who with colleagues discovered the anticancer compounds, taxol and camptothecin.

I first came to know of Dr. Wani while I was a graduate student in 1987 while attending a DNA topoisomerase chemotherapy conference at NYU in Manhattan. To be honest, I was too nervous to even introduce myself to this legend of natural products chemistry. Almost 25 years later, I am now blessed to call him a family friend. One of the other joys I have is sharing the now 86-year-old Dr. Wani and his story with my students. Here’s a recap of our visit with him as posted on our NCCU Eagles RISE blog:

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Vicks VapoRub PR Fail

I have to say that this whole episode is worth seeing editor and medical journalist, Ivan Oransky, MD, in a snuggie.

I can’t match the facts: Dr. Oransky reveals a promo-pak he received from the PR firm representing Vicks VapoRub contains about $400 of merchandise and purchase credits, but NO BLOODY VAPORUB!!!

Ethics and all aside, I’m quite disappointed that the PR firm charged with promoting this traditional folk brand would act against the basic ethical tenets of the Public Relations Society of America. As Ivan notes, it’s okay for PR firms to provide a small amount of complimentary product for review purposes but despite the lavish swag, there’s no product in his promo-pak!

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Compilation of synthetic marijuana posts (Spice, K2)

Welcome to readers arriving from Reddit – scroll down through the post for links to our more detailed discussions on cannabimimetics. (updated 8 October)

Recent media coverage of our writings on the chemistry, pharmacology, public health risks, and regulation of synthetic marijuana herbal incense products has led us to put together a compilation of posts we’ve written here on the topic over the last year-and-a-half.

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Norman R. Farnsworth, grandaddy of medicinal plant research, passes at 81

Sadly, the Good Professor has left the stadium. In loving memory of Dr. Norman R. Farnsworth (1930 - 2011). Credit: Unidentified UIC graduate student.

Professor Norman Farnsworth, a true giant of pharmacognosy research, left us on Saturday night in Chicago. Farnsworth was Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the institution where he made his mark over the last 41 years studying the medicinal properties of agents from natural origins.

In 1982, he established the UIC Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences, a model for today’s interdisciplinary research programs.  Farnsworth also led the UIC/NIH Center for Dietary Supplements Research has been the most productive and continuously-operating center of its type in the US.

A decorated Korean War veteran, Farnsworth received his B.S. in pharmacy from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in 1953 and his PhD in pharmacognosy from the University of Pittsburgh. He remained at Pitt on faculty until joining UIC in 1970.

Farnsworth was truly a seminal figure in medicinal plant chemistry and biology, serving as a founder of the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP) and the Society for Economic Botany, both in 1959. He was still a graduate student when he served as the first vice-president and second president of the ASP. Farnsworth had also served for the last 35 years on the editorial board of the Journal of Natural Products, the premier journal of the discipline from the American Chemical Society. He later founded the German-based journal, Phytomedicine, with another outstanding scientist, his longtime University of Munich colleague, Dr Hildebert Wagner.

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Eating Dirt and Terra Sigillata

“A cloak of loose, soft material, held to the earth’s hard surface by gravity, is all that lies between life and lifelessness.”

– Wallace H. Fuller, Soils of the Desert Southwest, 1975

El Santuario de Chimayo, New Mexico. Credit: www.elsantuariodechimayo.us

Dirt is a paradox.

Children playing in the dirt all day are admonished to wash their hands before eating dinner. But eating dirt, or geophagy, has been pervasive throughout centuries and across diverse cultures.

I learned last week while at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop that northern New Mexico is home to soils used for religious purposes. El Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic shrine and pilgrimage destination, is home to a small pit of soil called El Pocito. Legend has it that in 1810 a local friar saw light bursting from a hillside and found a crucifix when digging to identify the source. Since then the soil in the hole has been believed to impart healing properties.

The legend is so pervasive that Gerald Callahan used the story to launch a 2003 article in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a publication of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But one needn’t make a pilgrimage: you can order your holy dirt of Chimayo here. Alas, one is advised today that the dirt is not to be eaten or drunk, although other information on the website indicates that has been on use of the soil.

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