This year the Nobel prize in chemistry has been awarded to Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University in North Carolina and Brian Kobilka of Standford University, California for their discovery of G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCR’s). This awards follows decades of work by Lefkowitz and Kobilka and their colleagues.
In 1968, Lefkowitz used hormones tagged with radioactive iodine to track them to several GPC receptors in the body, including the one that responds to adrenalin. His lab was then able to isolate the receptor and determine how it worked.
In the 1980’s Kobilka identified the gene that makes the adrenaline receptor. It’s similarity with other genes revealed a larger family of GPCR’s which could be isolated and their substrates identified. There are nearly 1000 known GPCR’s in the body responding to a variety of stimuli including adrenaline, histidine, dopamine, light, smell and flavour.
The understanding of how GPCR’s function provides important insights in to the design of drugs. For example, with histidine associated with allergic reactions and Parkinson’s disease related to depletion of dopamine producing cells, understanding of how these receptors work and what molecules can interact with them provides clues as to new medical treatments.
The choice of Kobilka and Lefkowitz for the Nobel prize in chemistry is an interesting one, as it seems to me their work could also be recognised under the category of physiology and medicine. However, with science becoming ever more disciplinary it is not surprising that their work, which could be considered largely in the realm of chemical and molecular biology, was nominated for the chemistry prize.
(I wonder if they had the choice which prize they would have preferred. I know a number of physicists who mutter about Rutherford being awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry and not physics)