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U.S. Scientists Win Nobel for Cell Receptor Research

Pictures of US scientists Robert Lefkowitz (L) and Brian Kobilka who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry are projected on a screen as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announces the laureates on October 10, 2012 in Stockholm. Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry has gone to two U.S. researchers who shed light on how cells signal each other and communicate with their surrounding environment. Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka identified the form and function of G-protein-coupled receptors, proteins located on the surface of cells, which allow the transmission of information across the cell membrane.

In 1968, using radioactivity, Lefkowitz of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute discovered several receptors on the surface of cells, including a receptor for adrenalin embedded in the cell wall. Known as the the B-adrenergic receptor, it is an essential player in the regulation of heart rate and blood pressure.

In the 1980’s, Kobilka, now at Stanford University, isolated the gene that codes for that receptor and found in the process a whole family of similar receptors that look and function alike. These are known as G-protein-coupled receptors, and they regulate light, flavor and odor as well as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. They are also believed to mediate the actions of about half the medications we take.

“We really don’t know how to control them very well yet,” Kobilka said, in an interview with Nobelprize.org’s Adam Smith. “The medicines still aren’t perfect. They have side effects. Some of these are because they’re targeting for one receptor, but they’re promiscuous and they’re bind to another type of [G-protein-coupled receptor.] We still have quite a ways to go until we can take advantage of what we know about them in terms of therapeutics.”

Kobilka has since captured a three-dimensional image of a b-adrenergic receptor at the moment that it’s sending a signal into a cell.

“There really isn’t anything you encounter in the day that is a good model for it, but to be able to see it for the first time is amazing, in three dimensions,” Kobilka said.

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