2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
The year was 1984 when Professor Brian Kobilka, fresh from completing his medical residency, stepped into the Lefkowitz Lab of Duke University. With the public health service scholarship that paid for his medical degree de-funded, he was no longer obligated to serve in the public health services post-residency. Instead, he had to conduct academic research for four years. Interested in cardiology, Prof Kobilka joined the lab—headed by and named after Professor Robert Lefkowitz—as a postdoctoral fellow to conduct biochemistry and medical biology research.
This pivot to research felt serendipitous to Prof Kobilka, whose interest in science began as early as high school. While he first saw science as a way into medical training, he eventually spent weekends and summers in labs during college, pursuing various research projects. At medical school, his passion for research soon outweighed his interest in clinical practice.
Prof Kobilka was interested in G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs)—membrane proteins that are responsible for the body’s intracellular responses to external stimuli. The lab’s primary focus was on adrenergic GPCRs, which regulate the body’s responses to the adrenaline hormone. Supported by a dedicated team at Lefkowitz Lab, Prof Kobilka achieved a breakthrough in two years when he successfully cloned the beta-2 adrenergic receptor and identified its full DNA sequence. It was an exciting period as he was competing against other labs that were trying to achieve the same thing.
Since then, Prof Kobilka has dedicated his career to advancing GPCR research. He moved to Stanford University in 1989 to become a Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology, a role that he still holds. Now heading his own lab, his achievements include resolving the crystal structure of the G-protein complex—a feat that was particularly rewarding because he could collaborate with multiple researchers of various disciplines, from detergent scientists to lipid chemists to colleagues in X-ray crystallography.
For someone who had stated that he felt like a novice entering a lab full of well-trained biochemists and pharmacologists, Prof Kobilka is now the authority on all things GPCRs. His studies on GPCRs earned him the John J. Abel Award in Pharmacology in 1994, the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award in 2004 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012 (shared with Prof Lefkowitz).
Prof Kobilka believes collaborations and strong relationships in a lab are vital for scientific research, particularly if one is new to the field. His early transition from clinical to research was made smoother by his Lefkowitz Lab colleagues who generously devoted their time to helping him. He counts his wife, Dr Tong Sun Kobilka, as among his closest collaborators, and has co-founded the biotechnology company ConfometRx with her.