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US scientists Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka win Nobel chemistry prize

  • Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, right, of Duke University, arrives at his office at Duke to congratulations on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, the day Lefkowitz heard he had won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals like danger or the flavor of food. Such studies are key for developing better drugs. (AP Photo//Ted Richardson)

    Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, right, of Duke University, arrives at his office at Duke to congratulations on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, the day Lefkowitz heard he had won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals like danger or the flavor of food. Such studies are key for developing better drugs. (AP Photo//Ted Richardson)

  • FILE - Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, of Duke University Medical Center, one of three winners of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, listens to remarks at a news conference at Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y., in this  April 26, 2007 file photo. Lefkowitz along with American Brian Kobilka have won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry it was announced early Wednesday morning Oct. 10, 2012. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited the two researchers Wednesday "for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors." (AP Photo/Tim Roske, File)

    FILE - Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, of Duke University Medical Center, one of three winners of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, listens to remarks at a news conference at Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y., in this April 26, 2007 file photo. Lefkowitz along with American Brian Kobilka have won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry it was announced early Wednesday morning Oct. 10, 2012. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited the two researchers Wednesday "for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors." (AP Photo/Tim Roske, File)

  • This image made available by the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden Wednesday Oct. 10, 2012 shows Americans Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of proteins that let body cells respond to signals from the outside. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the two researchers had made groundbreaking discoveries on an important family of receptors, known as G-protein-coupled receptors.  (AP Photo/Scanpix/Swedish Academy of Sciences, HO) (AP Photo/Handout) **  SWEDEN OUT  **

    This image made available by the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden Wednesday Oct. 10, 2012 shows Americans Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of proteins that let body cells respond to signals from the outside. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the two researchers had made groundbreaking discoveries on an important family of receptors, known as G-protein-coupled receptors. (AP Photo/Scanpix/Swedish Academy of Sciences, HO) (AP Photo/Handout) ** SWEDEN OUT **

  • Dr. Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University hugs his adminstrative assistant of 35 years, Donna Addison, in Lefkowitz' office at Duke on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, the day Lefkowitz heard he had won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals like danger or the flavor of food. Such studies are key for developing better drugs. (AP Photo//Ted Richardson)

    Dr. Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University hugs his adminstrative assistant of 35 years, Donna Addison, in Lefkowitz' office at Duke on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, the day Lefkowitz heard he had won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals like danger or the flavor of food. Such studies are key for developing better drugs. (AP Photo//Ted Richardson)

  • Duke University biochemist Mardee Delahunty, left, greets Nobel Prize winner Robert Lefkowitz at the parking deck near Lefkowitz' office at Duke in Durham, N.C., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals like danger or the flavor of food. Such studies are key for developing better drugs. (AP Photo//Ted Richardson)

    Duke University biochemist Mardee Delahunty, left, greets Nobel Prize winner Robert Lefkowitz at the parking deck near Lefkowitz' office at Duke in Durham, N.C., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals like danger or the flavor of food. Such studies are key for developing better drugs. (AP Photo//Ted Richardson)

  • Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, right, of Duke University, arrives at his office at Duke to congratulations on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, the day Lefkowitz heard he had won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals like danger or the flavor of food. Such studies are key for developing better drugs. (AP Photo//Ted Richardson)
  • FILE - Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, of Duke University Medical Center, one of three winners of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, listens to remarks at a news conference at Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y., in this  April 26, 2007 file photo. Lefkowitz along with American Brian Kobilka have won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry it was announced early Wednesday morning Oct. 10, 2012. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited the two researchers Wednesday "for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors." (AP Photo/Tim Roske, File)
  • This image made available by the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden Wednesday Oct. 10, 2012 shows Americans Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of proteins that let body cells respond to signals from the outside. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the two researchers had made groundbreaking discoveries on an important family of receptors, known as G-protein-coupled receptors.  (AP Photo/Scanpix/Swedish Academy of Sciences, HO) (AP Photo/Handout) **  SWEDEN OUT  **
  • Dr. Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University hugs his adminstrative assistant of 35 years, Donna Addison, in Lefkowitz' office at Duke on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, the day Lefkowitz heard he had won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals like danger or the flavor of food. Such studies are key for developing better drugs. (AP Photo//Ted Richardson)
  • Duke University biochemist Mardee Delahunty, left, greets Nobel Prize winner Robert Lefkowitz at the parking deck near Lefkowitz' office at Duke in Durham, N.C., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of protein receptors that let body cells sense and respond to outside signals like danger or the flavor of food. Such studies are key for developing better drugs. (AP Photo//Ted Richardson)

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka had made groundbreaking discoveries, mainly in the 1980s, on an important family of receptors, known as G-protein-coupled receptors. About half of all medications act on these receptors, including beta blockers and antihistamines, so learning about them will help scientists to come up with better drugs.

The human body has about 1,000 kinds of such receptors, structures on the surface of cells, which let the body respond to a wide variety of chemical signals, like adrenaline. Some receptors are in the nose, tongue and eyes, and let us sense smells, tastes and light.

“They work as a gateway to the cell,” Lefkowitz told a news conference in Stockholm by phone. “As a result they are crucial ... to regulate almost every known physiological process with humans.”

Lefkowitz, 69, is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Kobilka, 57, worked for Lefkowitz at Duke before transferring to Stanford University School of Medicine in California, where he is now a professor.

Lefkowitz said he was fast asleep when the Nobel committee called, but he didn’t hear it because he was wearing ear plugs. So his wife picked up the phone.

“She said, ‘There’s a call here for you from Stockholm,’” Lefkowitz told The Associated Press. “I knew they ain’t calling to find out what the weather is like in Durham today.”

He said he didn’t have an “inkling” that he was being considered for the Nobel Prize.

“Initially, I expected I’d have this huge burst of excitement. But I didn’t. I was comfortably numb,” Lefkowitz said.

Kobilka said he found out around 2:30 a.m., after the Nobel committee called his home twice. He said he didn’t get to the phone the first time, but that when he picked up the second time, he spoke to five members of the committee.

“They passed the phone around and congratulated me,” Kobilka told AP. I guess they do that so you actually believe them. When one person calls you, it can be a joke, but when five people with convincing Swedish accents call you, then it isn’t a joke.”

He said he would put his half of the 8 million kronor ($1.2 million) award toward retirement or “pass it on to my kids.”

The academy said it was long a mystery how cells interact with their environment and adapt to new situations, such as when they react to adrenaline by increasing blood pressure and making the heart beat faster.

Scientists suspected that cell surfaces had some type of receptor for hormones.

Using radioactivity, Lefkowitz managed to unveil receptors including the receptor for adrenaline, and started to understand how it works.

Kobilka and his team realized that there is a whole family of receptors that look alike — a family that is now called G-protein-coupled receptors.

In 2011, Kobilka achieved another breakthrough when his team captured an image of the receptor for adrenaline at the moment when it is activated by a hormone and sends a signal into the cell. The academy called the image “a molecular masterpiece.”

The award is “fantastic recognition for helping us further understand the intricate details of biochemical systems in our bodies,” said Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, president of the American Chemical Society.

“They both have made great contributions to our understanding of health and disease,” Shakhashiri said. “This is going to help us a great deal to develop new pharmaceuticals, new medicines for combating disease.”

Drugs such as beta blockers, antihistamines and various psychiatric medicines have been around for some time, but before Lefkowitz and Kobilka’s discoveries, their impact on the human body wasn’t fully understood, said Sven Lidin, chairman of the prize committee.

“All we knew was that they worked, but we didn’t know why,” Lidin said. There is hope that the Nobel-winning research will lead to new medicines, he added.

Mark Downs, chief executive of Britain’s Society of Biology, said the critical role receptors play is now taking for granted.

“This groundbreaking work spanning genetics and biochemistry has laid the basis for much of our understanding of modern pharmacology as well as how cells in different parts of living organisms can react differently to external stimulation, such as light and smell, or the internal systems which control our bodies such as hormones,” Downs said in a statement.

The U.S. has dominated the Nobel chemistry prize in recent years, with American scientists being included among the winners of 17 of the past 20 awards.

This year’s Nobel announcements started Monday with the medicine prize going to stem cell pioneers John Gurdon of Britain and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka. Frenchman Serge Haroche and American David Wineland won the physics prize Tuesday for work on quantum particles.

The Nobel Prizes were established in the will of 19th-century Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. The awards are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896.

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