Two American Scientists Win Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Today two American chemists, Robert J. Lefkowitz of Duke University and Brian K. Kobilka of Stanford University, were awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry. OSTP is pleased to congratulate these exceptional scientists and celebrate their high achievement. OSTP Director John P. Holdren called both winners today to convey those good wishes.

The Nobel Prize Committee cited the two winners "for studies of G-protein–coupled receptors,” tiny sensors that allow cells to “read” their surrounding environment.

Scientists have long understood that cells in the body are able to sense and respond to various substances and stimuli, including environmental chemicals, hormones produced by other cells, and in some cases physical phenomena such as light. Taken together, these cells and their sensors provide the foundation of all the body’s major senses, while also facilitating a level of cross-talk among cells needed to ensure proper physiological and metabolic balance.

Yet until a few decades ago, the form and function of this crucial communications network remained elusive to scientists, even as it became clear that it held the key to critical mysteries in pharmacology and medicine. Understanding exactly how cells are able to sense and respond to their surroundings became a great challenge of chemistry.

Supported by basic research funding from the National Institutes of Health and other sources, Lefkowitz and Kobilka gradually provided answers. First, by using radioactive tracers to track the behavior of hormones, Lekfowitz was able to identify and extract unique receptor molecules—protein assemblies on the surface of cells—including the receptor for the well-known fight-or-flight hormone, adrenaline. Later, Kobilka isolated the specific gene that serves as a DNA blueprint for that adrenaline receptor. Noting that its basic structure resembled that of other receptors, he also came to understand that there exists an entire family of similar receptors, now widely known as G-protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs.  Kobilka has since captured remarkable images of a GPCR at its precise moment of action in the cell.

The practical implications of these discoveries are many, with some already playing out in the world of medicine, where an estimated half of all pharmaceuticals are now understood to work through this class of receptors. When this area of research began, scientists had no way of knowing what applications and solutions would emerge. The very act of pursuing answers to basic scientific questions about cell receptors opened new doors to discovery and innovation. That’s the beauty of basic research.

The Federal Government’s steady investment in this kind of fundamental science is now panning out in this and in so many other fields, leading not just to Nobel Prizes but to benefits for all Americans and for people around the world.

Congratulations again to this year’s winners of the chemistry Nobel, and to the countless individuals who benefit from America’s ongoing investment in the fundamentals of science, technology, and innovation.

To learn more about the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, visit:

Becky Fried is a Policy Analyst at OSTP

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