Brian K. Kobilka and Robert J. Lefkowitz have won this year’s chemistry Nobel for their work “crucial for understanding how G-protein–coupled receptors function”.
Lefkowitz works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Kobilka is at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.
A Nature feature from 2011 explored Kobilka’s work (see ‘Cell signalling: It’s all about the structure‘). It explains:
Nearly every function of the human body, from sight and smell to heart rate and neuronal communication, depends on G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). Lodged in the fatty membranes that surround cells, they detect hormones, odours, chemical neurotransmitters and other signals outside the cell, and then convey their messages to the interior by activating one of several types of G protein. The G protein, in turn, triggers a plethora of other events. The receptors make up one of the largest families of human proteins and are the targets of one-third to one-half of drugs. Working out their atomic structure will help researchers to understand how this central cellular-communication system works, and could help drug-makers to design more effective treatments.
The Nobel committee cites Lefkowitz’s work using radioactivity to trace cells’ receptors, which allowed researchers to start understanding how they work. Kobilka picked up the trail and started working to isolate the gene encoding one of the receptors earlier scrutinized by Lefkowitz. Then, in 2011, Kobilka’s team managed to tease out the structure of the one receptor actually in complex with its G-protein (see ‘Cell signalling caught in the act’).
Read more about G-protein-coupled receptors in this collection of research and news published by Nature over the past few years.
Nature will have a longer story on the prize later today (UPDATE – it’s here).