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Stanford’s Brian Kobilka wins 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Updated 1:57 PM: We’ve included on our website some thoughts and congratulatory remarks from Kobilka’s colleagues. I quite like what Andrew Fire, PhD, who won a Nobel in 2006, had to say:

Fire offered some thoughts on how winning a Nobel doesn’t entirely change a scientist’s life. “Winning the Nobel doesn’t mean that every grant is going to get approved,” he said. “You shouldn’t be able to convince somebody that something is true just because you have the Nobel. What it does mean is that if you have something you want to say, people will listen. There’s that media attention — that has been somewhat useful.” He noted, for instance, that he works with two other medical school Nobel laureates — Paul Berg, PhD, and Roger Kornberg, PhD — to champion basic science. “That press attention has helped,” he said.

Fire also said that he thought it was great that this Nobel award is for a very recent piece of work. “Often the award is for work that is done 30, 40 years ago,” he said. And he also observed that Kobilka’s background was significant for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. “His background is in medicine,” Fire said. “He was very modest about that, but his training is really tremendous.”

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Updated 11:22 AM: My colleague Kris Newby just bought to my attention an excellent personal profile of Kobilka’s life that appeared last year in Nature. As she explained it to me, “the narrative describes how the son of a baker from rural Minnesota town got a medical degree, then quietly toiled at a lab bench for more 20 years before his ‘eureka moment,’ when he and the co-recipient of the prize unlocked the mysteries of how cells interact with their environment and adapt to their environment.”

The article also vividly illustrates the need for the country to make long-term investments in basic research, describing the time that Kobilka’s lab almost ran out of funding:

In 2001, Kobilka got disheartening news. His main funding, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, would not be renewed after it ran out in 2003. His lab began to struggle financially, and went “deep into the red” to support his expensive crystallization crusade. “I don’t think I ever considered giving up,” says Kobilka. “I admit that it was frustrating at times, but I enjoyed the challenge and I wanted to know the answer.” Kobilka says that one of his friends “best described my persistence as ‘irrational optimism’.”

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Updated 10:15 AM: When asked by a Reuters TV reporter at the press conference about his “emotional and physical reaction” to learning he had won, Kobilka said, “I wasn’t actually sure it was real to begin with.” And then, causing the room to roar with laughter, “I was extremely happy.”

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Updated 8:59 AM: Kobilka will talk about his work and Nobel Prize during a press conference being held at 10 AM Pacific time. For those interested, the conference will be broadcast live here.

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Updated 8:26 AM: People have been buzzing a bit this morning over the fact that two MDs were given a prize in chemistry. (Slate’s Josh Voorhees points to a colleague’s tweet saying “Chemistry is everywhere! Except in this year’s #chemistry #Nobel.) Ian Sample from the Guardian chatted about this with David Phillips, PhD, past president of the Royal Society in Chemistry, who said the work “is of such importance to human health, I’m not at all surprised they’ve been awarded this prize.” Phillips elaborated:

The field of chemical biology is burgeoning because at its heart, at the heart of certainly cell biology, is an understanding at the molecular level of what’s going on and that’s chemistry essentially. So other sorts of chemistry are still going on and still very important, but this level of understanding which has been made possible by advances in techniques over the last 20 years or so is crucial to mankind. I’m not worried at all that many of my colleagues are working in what is essentially a biological field, because I think it’s so crucial that we understand the molecular processes that are going on in cells in animal and human bodies.

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Updated 7:51 AM: Experts in the field are beginning to weigh in on today’s Nobel Prize announcement. Reuters reports:

Sven Lidin, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Lund University and chairman of the [Nobel] committee, said the discovery had been vital for medical research.

“Knowing what they (the receptors) look like and how they function will provide us with the tools to make better drugs with fewer side effects,” he added.

The receptors were “the holy grail of membrane protein research”, said Mark Sansom, Professor of Molecular Biophysics at Oxford University.

“Out of the roughly 1,400 drugs that exist in the world, about 1,000 of them are little pills that you consume, and the majority of these are based in these receptors,” [Johan Aqvist, Professor of Chemistry at Sweden's Uppsala University,] told Reuters.

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Updated 7:19 AM: Medical school dean Philip Pizzo, MD, comments on Kobilka’s prize this morning, saying Kobilka’s work “is a testament to the importance of supporting basic science research – whose payoff can take many years or decades to reach fruition but, when it does, it changes the direction of medicine and science.”

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Updated 5:05 AM: In our developing story, my colleague Krista Conger offers a nice description of G-protein-coupled receptors and captures Kobilka’s initial reaction to his win:

The receptors, which snake in and out of the cell membrane, serve as one of the main methods of communication within the body — conveying chemical messages from outside through the membrane and into the cell’s interior.

About 1,000 human genes encode the receptors. They regulate the beating of our hearts, the workings of our brains and nearly every other physiological process. About 40 percent of all medications target these receptors.

One of these receptors recognizes and responds to epinephrine, or adrenaline. Kobilka received a powerful lesson in the effect of the hormone when he received the call from the Nobel committee early this morning.

“I didn’t believe it at first, but after I spoke with about five people — they handed the phone around — with really convincing Swedish accents, I started to think it was for real,’ said Kobilka.

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3:30 AM: Brian Kobilka, MD, professor and chair of molecular and cellular physiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, alongside Robert Lefkowitz, MD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Duke University, have been named winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. An announcement was just made by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, saying the researchers were rewarded for their “groundbreaking discoveries that reveal the inner workings of an important family of… G-protein–coupled receptors.”

We’re thrilled with the news, and we’ll post more details here as the day progresses. You can also get updates on Twitter by following our @SUMedicine feed or following the hashtag #SUNobel.

Photo by Linda Cicero/Stanford News Service

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