STOCKHOLM — U.S. researchers Robert J. Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka on Wednesday shared the Nobel Chemistry Prize for their pioneering studies on cell receptors, which enable each cell to sense its environment, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Their research on "G-protein-coupled receptors" could also contribute to developing better drugs, according to the Nobel Committee.
Receptors serve as sensors for cells, communicating from outside the cell to the inside, similar to the body's sensors for light (eyes), smell (nose) or taste (mouth), the committee said.
G-protein-coupled receptors comprise "a whole family of receptors," it said, noting that "about half of all medications achieve their effect through G-protein-coupled receptors."
Antihistamines, beta blockers and different drugs for psychiatric conditions use receptors.
"The receptors are a bit like the switchboard in a building," explained Sara Snogerup Linse, a committee member. "How it works is very important information for the development of drugs."
"Thanks to the receptors I now can enjoy a cup of coffee," she said, as an assistant poured her a cup. "And thanks to Lefkowitz and Kobilka I know how it works."
Lefkowitz is with Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. He used radioactivity in 1968 to trace cells' receptors, discovering several and gaining an initial understanding of them.
Kobilka, affiliated with Stanford University School of Medicine in California, worked as a research assistant with Lefkowitz in the 1980s and was instrumental in tracing a key gene that codes the receptor for adrenalin.
The 57-year-old told dpa that the news had hit him "like a thunderbolt ... I keep trying to convince myself that this is not a dream."
The phone had rung in the middle of the night, he said. "Since then there's been one call after the other. I am answering the house phone, my wife is on the mobile."
But the prize has not gone to his head. "I am not interesting, rather dull," he said. "I can't offer much besides a bit cycling here and there."
Earlier he told Swedish Radio that the Nobel Committee had had to phone him twice, because "I didn't make it to the phone in time."
Lefkowitz told the committee in Stockholm by phone that he was "very, very excited," to receive the prize.
"I was fast asleep and the phone rang. I was wearing earplugs. My wife gave me an elbow. And there it was, a total surprise."
"By then, I was wide awake. Surely, Stockholm did not call to ask me for the weather," Lefkowitz told dpa a few hours after the call.
After the flood of emails from friends, he said it felt as though he was "reliving my whole life."
He hadn't yet found the time to notify his five children and five grandchildren. "Not one of them is in science. I think they saw how hard I was working and came to the conclusion: This is not for us," he laughingly told dpa.
"I was going to get a haircut today, I am afraid I will have to postpone that ... It'll be a pretty crazy day at my office," he told Swedish Radio.
Both plan to travel to Stockholm for the award ceremony on Dec. 10.