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Nobel In Chemistry Is Shared By Two Americans


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

All this week, we've been reporting on the winners of this year's Nobel Prizes. And today in Stockholm, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The chair of the Nobel Prize committee for chemistry described the importance of the discovery by giving the assembled reporters a little scare.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Boo. Do you remember the last time you got really scared? The dryness of the mouth, the heart that skips a beat, these are signs that your body is getting ready for flight or fight.

INSKEEP: And the Nobel committee cited research that involves how the cells in your body respond to being scared. It was an honor, said the committee, for research into, quote, "cells and sensibility," Which is the latest little known Jane Austen novel we've plugged on the air this week. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to tell us more about it.

Nell, good morning.


INSKEEP: OK. Who were the winners here?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, there are two researchers, both in the United States. There's Robert Lefkowitz of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Duke University Medical Center, and Brian Kobilka with Stanford University's School of Medicine.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: And what these researchers won for was their studies of something called G-protein-coupled receptors. So this is a large family of receptors in the body. They're found on the surfaces of cells. And they respond to things like adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin.

INSKEEP: Receptors meaning that they're telling the cell that something is coming their way, like adrenaline or whatever else, is that what you're saying?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. Signaling molecules gather outside the cells and these receptors sense that, bind to them and then send that signal inside the cell, so the cell can react. And so they're also involved in our senses to let us do things like smell a cup of coffee that you might be drinking.

INSKEEP: Like now?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So they're hugely important. I mean, they're basically the way our bodies respond to our environment. And these two researchers did a slew of work to understand these receptors and what they do. They found a gene. They unraveled the structure of the receptors. They were able to see the receptors in action binding to one of these signaling molecules. So they did extraordinary feats of science that have real world practical implications.

INSKEEP: Such as?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, for example, about half of all pharmaceuticals act on these receptors. Name a disease, pick a disease and there probably are drugs that are used to treat it that act on one member of this huge family of receptors. So you can see how understanding these receptors and how they work could be important for figuring out, you know, new medications and new ways to treat disease.

INSKEEP: OK. I understand you've got one of the winners on the line already.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, actually, that took place during the press conference from Stockholm.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. All right. Go on. Go on.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, they reached Robert Lefkowitz by phone. We have some tape of him talking. He said he'd actually been sleeping when the call came in, because, of course, you know, they don't call the winners until just before the announcement is made. And he said that he actually wears earplugs when he sleeps. So he didn't even hear the phone ringing.

ROBERT LEFKOWITZ: And so my wife gave me an elbow, call for you. And there it was, a total shock and surprise.

INSKEEP: Wow. There's going to be that cell research plug kicking in there, because his cells were responding. But go on, go on.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, I'm sure. I mean, he probably had a minute understanding of what was happening in his own body at that time. He was asked, you know, what are your plans for today? What are you going to do? And he said, well, you know, I guess I'll go to the office.

LEFKOWITZ: Well, I'm thinking that this is going to be a very, very hectic day. I plan to go to the office. I was going to get a haircut but...


LEFKOWITZ: ...which if you could see me you would see is quite a necessity. But I'm afraid that'll probably have to be postponed.


INSKEEP: OK. But a big day for him, even if he does go to the office.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. That's right. And, you know, besides the incredible prestige, he gets to bring home a Nobel and he gets to share $1.2 million.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.