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NIGMS Grantee Honored with Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Statement from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences
October 10, 2012

GPCR-G protein complex

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences congratulates Brian K. Kobilka, M.D., who will share the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Robert J. Lefkowitz, M.D., “for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors.” The Institute has supported Kobilka’s work at Stanford University School of Medicine since 2005.

These receptors, abbreviated GPCRs, are key to critical bodily functions; our senses of sight, smell and taste; and the action of close to half of today’s medications. GPCRs respond to stimuli like odor molecules or hormones by interacting with molecules called G proteins. This, in turn, transmits relevant molecular signals into cells.

“The work being honored today promises not only to speed the discovery of new and improved drugs, but also to deepen our understanding of the signaling processes that are vital to our health,” said Judith H. Greenberg, Ph.D., NIGMS acting director.

Kobilka’s crowning achievement, which the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called “a molecular masterpiece,” occurred just last year. His research team published the detailed, 3-D structure of an important GPCR (the β2-adrenergic receptor) attached to its G protein partner. The research showed that this GPCR, which senses adrenaline and then triggers the fight-or-flight response, moves in surprising ways when it joins with the G protein.

To accomplish this, Kobilka used a combination of creative strategies including a special antibody called a "nanobody" to make the normally intractable GPCR more amenable for study. There are hundreds of GPCR proteins, all of which are vitally important to human health and all of which are similarly difficult to study. Because Kobilka’s techniques were so successful, other scientists are already using many of them to study different GPCR proteins. This multiplying effect of a single scientific accomplishment is one of the hallmarks of Nobel Prize-winning basic research.

“Today’s honor recognizes a spectacular accomplishment that required decades of work as well as creative techniques that propelled the researchers over daunting scientific obstacles,” noted Greenberg. “It also underscores the potential power—and payoff—of investing in basic biomedical research, which NIGMS has been doing for 50 years.”

Recognizing the importance of GPCRs and many other membrane proteins, NIGMS has made an effort to advance the field through various research projects on GPCRs, its Protein Structure Initiative and its involvement in the NIH Common Fund Structural Biology program. In addition, the Institute supported the development of the specialized synchrotron micro-beamline at Argonne National Laboratory, a major scientific resource that was essential for Kobilka to achieve his prize-winning results.

In addition to more than $3 million in funding from NIGMS, Kobilka also received support from other parts of NIH, primarily the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. His total NIH support exceeds $14 million.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute supported Lefkowitz’s research at Duke University Medical Center with nearly $15 million in funding since 1974.

NIGMS has a long history of funding Nobel Prize-winning research. Since its creation 50 years ago, the Institute has supported 38 Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine and 37 Nobel laureates in chemistry.

More information about NIGMS support of Nobel Prize winners is available at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/pages/factsheet_NIGMSNobelists.aspx with a complete list at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/pages/GMNobelists.aspx.

This page last reviewed on November 14, 2014