Duke University Nobel Prize winner blazing trail to new medicines

The (Raleigh) News & ObserverOctober 11, 2012 

— A scientist who has spent his career at Duke University, Robert Lefkowitz, will share the 2012 Nobel Prize for chemistry with a Stanford University researcher he trained in the 1980s.

Lefkowitz, 69, and his former student, Brian Kobilka, 57, were recognized Wednesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for discoveries about how the body’s cells respond to outside signals – a key to the workings of beta blockers, antihistamines and as many as half of all prescription medications.

Their discoveries have opened the door to creating medicine that is more effective and less likely to cause side effects.

Lefkowitz, a thin, energetic professor of biochemistry, immunology and medicine in Duke’s medical school, is known for his enthusiasm and a love of mentoring younger scientists.

He has long been mentioned for the Nobel. Still, he said, it caught him off guard. The news was announced via an elbow from his wife, Lynn, at 5 a.m. He hadn’t heard the phone because he sleeps with earplugs.

“It’s Stockholm calling,” she said.

Lefkowitz joked during a news conference at Duke a few hours later that he was pretty sure a bunch of Swedes weren’t calling to check the weather in Durham, so he got up and took the phone.

He said the honor was all the sweeter when he found out it included Kobilka.

“Needless to say, I’m thrilled, I’m excited, I’m delighted to be sharing the award with a former student of mine who I admire and who I’m very fond of,” he said.

His voice cracked as he described talking with Kobilka after they were notified, and thanking his younger colleague for taking their work a level further, which Kobilka thinks may have elevated it enough to make the prize possible.

Despite Duke’s global reputation for research, academics and health care, it was the first Nobel for a scientist there, and university leaders basked in the moment at the news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of the medical school, said Lefkowitz is known as much for his skill at mentoring other researchers as for his groundbreaking work.

“I think there are three ways that medical scientists can be great: by making discoveries that immediately transform patient care, by making scientific contributions that stand the test of time, and by mentoring the next generation of scientists,” she said. “Bob Lefkowitz has accomplished all three, and I think it’s fair to say he has done it over and over and over again.”

One of the biggest days in the university’s history was nearly 40 years in the making.

Lefkowitz came to Duke in 1973 from Harvard, after training there and at Columbia University as a cardiologist.

In the 1980s, he discovered a class of tiny cell structures called G protein-coupled receptors. The receptors, which are stitched through a cell’s outer membrane, give the cell information about chemical changes in the body, acting as a kind of middleman to trigger the cell’s response to chemicals such as adrenaline or a drug.

He showed that they respond to chemical changes outside the cell in the same way that other receptors in the body detect smells, taste and light. About half of all medicines act on these receptors. As scientists learn how they work, they are leading to improvements in drugs.

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.

Lefkowitz now oversees a lab with as many as 30 scientists at a time, and has mentored more than 200 students and post-doctoral researchers.

The pair will travel to Stockholm in December to receive the $1.2 million prize.

Lefkowitz said he would continue his work. “If you were a fly on the wall in 1973, and now, my daily activities wouldn’t look very different,” he said. “I’m still hard at it. My lab is bigger. But I’m pretty much doing what I was doing, which is doing science, interacting with my fellows, and having a hell of a good time.”

He said that he’ll continue collaborating with Kobilka, too. “The two of us,” he said, “will soldier on together.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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