DURHAM -- A scientist who has spent his career at Duke University, Robert J. 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 K. 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 general enthusiasm and a love of mentoring younger scientists. In addition to his appointment at Duke, he is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
He has won a host of major awards and long has been touted as a likely winner of the Nobel. Still, he said, it caught him off guard. The life-changing news was first announced via an elbow from his wife, Lynn, at 5 a.m. The eminent scientist 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 quickly called news conference Wednesday afternoon.
“What a joy for all of us, this treasure we knew we had in our midst, now to have it lifted up,” said Duke President Richard Brodhead. Brodhead hailed Lefkowitz as “a great citizen of Duke and of the scientific world,” and said one of the first things he was told upon arriving at the university in 2004 is that Lefkowitz was likely to win the Nobel because of the fundamental importance of his discoveries.
Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of the medical school, said Lefkowitz was known on campus 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.”
Lefkowitz said he was thrilled for Duke as much as for himself and his friend because the Nobel deservedly burnished the university’s reputation.
“It won’t be our last,” he said.
Columbia, Harvard and Duke
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.
Before the news conference, Lefkowitz told Brodhead that it’s not surprising that he and Kobilka were being recognized for a body of work stretching back four decades.
“Some things become obvious very, very quickly,” Lefkowitz said. “Others, it takes hundreds of years, and we’re all gone by the time it’s clear.”
Taking in the news
Kobilka said he learned of the prize 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 when he picked it up the second time, he spoke to five members of the committee.
“They passed the phone around and congratulated me,” Kobilka told the Associated Press. “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.”
As the Duke news conference started Wednesday, a university spokesman noted that Stanford’s had just ended and would be available for viewing online. Lefkowitz’s ears perked up.
Later, he said that he and Kobilka could scarcely be less alike in handling attention. He described himself as voluble and garrulous, and Kobilka as painfully shy. The idea of Kobilka having to field journalists’ questions and standing at the center of attention for a news conference was a hoot.
“I can’t wait to watch that,” he said. “I’ve got to see this. The idea that Brian stood up there and took questions from the press, I’m warning you, it will be very painful.”
Just ‘doing what I was doing’
The pair will travel to Stockholm in December to receive the $1.2 million prize. Lefkowitz said he would probably have to do most of the talking. He said that he expects life to be hectic for a while but that he hoped the honor wouldn’t change him much. He said that he would continue his work and wasn’t faintly interested in coasting on his reputation.
“Here I am, just about 40 years later, still at it,” he said. “If you were a fly on the wall in 1973, and now, my daily activities wouldn’t look very different. 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 will soldier on together,” he said.