The studies of the two winners, Robert J. Lefkowitz, of Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University Medical Center and Brian K. Kobilka of the Stanford University School of Medicine, revolved around the mystery of how cells could sense their environment.
“Your body is a fine-tuned system of interactions between billions of cells. Each cell has tiny receptors that enable it to sense its environment, so it can adapt to new situations,” wrote the Nobel Committee in a statement.
The prize was awarded for the winners’ discoveries which revealed the inner workings of one family of such receptors, the G-protein–coupled receptors.
Speaking from his home in the US during the press conference, Lefkowitz was ecstatic about the victory.
“I’m feeling very, very excited. I was fast asleep when the phone rang but I did not hear it. I must share with you that I wear ear plugs,” he told the gathered press.
“My wife gave me an elbow and said ‘phone for you’. And there it was. A total shock and surprise.”
The shock of the win has also thrown a spanner in the works for the researcher, who had planned other activities for his Wednesday.
“I’m thinking it’s going to be a very, very hectic day. I was going to get a haircut… but I’m afraid that will probably have to be postponed,” he said.
But the scientist’s discoveries were a long time coming, and the result of decades of work.
Researches had long suspecting that cell surfaces contained some kind of recipient for hormones.
In 1968, Lefkowitz began experimenting with radioactivity as a means of tracing cells’ receptors, in an effort to solve the puzzle of how the cells could sense their environment.
Through the addition of an iodine isotope to various hormones, Lefkowitz and a team of researchers managed to extract a receptor from its hiding place and began to understand how they functioned.
In the 1980s, the team recruited Kobilka whose “creative approach” to isolating the one specific gene from the gigantic human genome allowed further breakthroughs, including the discovery that this particular receptor was similar to those in the eye which capture light.
This family is now referred to as G-protein–coupled receptors, of which roughly one thousand genes code for receptors including light, flavour, odour, adrenalin, histamine, dopamine and serotonin.
“The studies by Lefkowitz and Kobilka are crucial for understanding how G-protein–coupled receptors function,” said the Nobel committee.
Be sure to follow The Local’s Nobel Prize live blog here for more information and background on the prizes.