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Duke's Robert Lefkowitz shares in chemistry Nobel Prize

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Published on Oct 10, 2012

DURHAM, N.C. -- Robert J. Lefkowitz MD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator who has spent his entire 39-year research career at the Duke University Medical Center, is sharing the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Brian K. Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine, who was a post-doctoral fellow in Lefkowitz's lab in the 1980s.

They are being recognized for their work on a class of cell surface receptors that have become the target of prescription drugs, including antihistamines, ulcer drugs and beta blockers to relieve hypertension, angina and coronary disease.

The receptors catch chemical signals from the outside and transmit their messages into the cell, providing the cell with information about changes occurring within the body. These particular receptors are called seven-transmembrane G protein-coupled receptors, or just "G-coupled receptors" for short. Serpentine in appearance, G-coupled receptors weave through the surface of the cell seven times.

The human genome contains code to make at least 1,000 different forms of these trans-membrane receptors, all of which are quite similar. The receptors also bear a strong resemblance to receptors that detect light in the eyes, smells in the nose and taste on the tongue.

"Bob's seminal discoveries related to G-protein coupled receptors ultimately became the basis for a great many medications that are in use today across many disease areas," said Victor J. Dzau, MD, Chancellor for Health Affairs and CEO, Duke University Health System. "He is an outstanding example of a physician-scientist whose impact can be seen in the lives of the countless patients who have benefited from his scientific discoveries. We are very proud of his magnificent achievements and grateful for his many contributions to Duke Medicine."

"We are thrilled that the Nobel Committee has recognized Bob's incredible body of work, and very proud that he has been on our faculty for his entire career," said Nancy Andrews, MD, PhD, Dean, Duke University School of Medicine. "Bob is not just an extraordinary scientist but also a remarkable mentor; he has had a profound influence on the careers of more than 200 students and postdoctoral fellows."

In addition to being one of the longest-serving Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators in history (36 years), Lefkowitz is famous on the Duke campus for the attention he gives to mentoring his students. His lab has produced more than 200 graduate students and post-docs, including R. Sanders "Sandy" Williams, who later became his dean at Duke, and several researchers who went on to become HHMI investigators themselves. Lefkowitz is a professor of biochemistry, immunology and medicine, and also a basic research cardiologist in the Duke Heart Center.

Among his students was Brian Kobilka, with whom he is sharing the Nobel Prize. Kobilka was a post-doctoral fellow in cardiology at Duke from 1984 to 1989 and part of Lefkowitz's lab. He joined the faculty of medicine and molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford in 1990.

They will receive the Nobel Prize in Stockholm at a Dec. 10 ceremony.

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