Research on cell receptors awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Published: 2012-10-10

Each of the billions of cells in our bodies have tiny receptors used to receive chemical messages. Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka are awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for revealing the inner workings of an important family of such receptors.


Before Robert Lefkowitz started his research it was a mystery how cells could sense their environment. Scientists suspected that cell surfaces contained some kind of recipient for hormones, but didn’t know what they looked like or how they worked.

In 1968 Robert Lefkowitz used radioactivity to find the cells’ receptors. He attached an iodine isotope to various hormones. The radioactivity made it possible to identify several different receptors, including the receptor for adrenaline.

Brian Kobilka was recruited to work on Lefkowitz’s team, and during the 1980s he managed to track down the gene that codes for the adrenaline receptor. After analysing the gene, the team discovered that the receptor is similar to one that captures light in the eye. Soon they realised  that there is a whole family of receptors that look and work similarly.

‘They work together with a number of other incoming signals. They are co-workers in recognising the environment that the cells are in’, says Lena Claesson-Welsh, Professor of Medical Biochemistry at the Department of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology at Uppsala University.

The family of receptors is now known as G-protein-coupled receptors. There are about a thousand of these receptors detecting such things as light, flavour, odour, adrenaline and histamine. Many medications work by targeting G-protein-coupled receptors.

‘There are many of these receptors that we don’t know what they react to. A lot of molecular work still remains’, says Lena Claesson-Welsh.

Here you can read more about this years Nobel Prize in Chemistry.


Facts/Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 2012

Robert Lefkowitz is professor of medicine and professor of biochemistry at Duke University, Durham, USA. Brian Kobilka is professor of medicine and professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, USA.


David Naylor