Two US scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry yesterday for research into how cells respond to external stimuli that is helping to develop better drugs to fight diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and depression.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the prize went to Robert Lefkowitz, 69, and Brian Kobilka, 57, for discovering the inner workings of G-protein-coupled receptors (GPRCs), which allow cells to respond to chemical messages, such as adrenaline rushes.
“Around half of all medications act through these receptors, among them beta blockers, antihistamines and various kinds of psychiatric medications,” the Nobel committee said.
Working out better ways to target the receptors is an area of keen focus for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
Lefkowitz told a press conference by telephone he was asleep when the call came from Sweden.
“I did not hear it — I must share with you that I wear earplugs to sleep. So my wife gave me an elbow. So there it was, a total shock and surprise,” he said.
GPCRs are linked to a wide range of diseases, since they play a central role in many biological functions in the body, but developing new drugs to target them accurately has been difficult because of a lack of fundamental understanding as to how they function.
Experts say the work of the Nobel Prize winners has opened the door to making better medicines.
Mark Downs, chief executive of Britain’s Society of Biology, said the researchers had covered important ground in more than one discipline.
“This groundbreaking work spanning genetics and biochemistry has laid the basis for much of our understanding of modern pharmacology, as well as how cells in different parts of living organisms can react differently to external stimulation,” he said in a statement.
Johan Aqvist, professor of chemistry at Sweden’s Uppsala University, said Lefkowitz was “the father of this entire field.”
“Out of the roughly 1,400 drugs that exist in the world, about 1,000 of them are little pills that you consume and the majority of these are based in these receptors,” he said.