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Scientists suspected that cells had some type of receptor for hormones and other substances, but they couldn’t find any.

Lefkowitz managed to reveal receptors, such as one for adrenaline, and started to understand how that one works.

Kobilka, working with Lefkowitz, found the gene that tells the body how to make the adrenaline receptor, and it soon became clear that there was a whole family of receptors that look alike – a family that is now called G-protein-coupled receptors.

Since then, scientists have built up detailed knowledge about how those receptors work and how they are regulated. The two prize winners “have been at the forefront of this entire scientific journey,” the Nobel committee said.

Kobilka moved on to Stanford after the gene discovery, and just last year he and his team there captured an image of a receptor at the moment it transferred the signal from a hormone to the interior of the cell. The academy called that “a molecular masterpiece.”

Awarding the Nobel to Lefkowitz and Kobilka is “a fantastic decision,” said Roger Sunahara, who studies how hormones activate the receptors at the University of Michigan. With detailed knowledge about the receptors, scientists can better understand how drugs work, which in turn helps them improve current medications and look for new ones, he said.

Drugs such as beta blockers, antihistamines and various psychiatric medicines have been around for some time, but before Lefkowitz and Kobilka’s discoveries, their interaction with the human body wasn’t fully understood, said Sven Lidin, chairman of the prize committee.

“All we knew was that they worked, but we didn’t know why,” Lidin said.

Mark Downs, chief executive of Britain’s Society of Biology, said the critical role receptors play is now taken for granted.

“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, such as light and smell, or the internal systems which control our bodies such as hormones,” Downs said in a statement.

The U.S. has dominated the Nobel chemistry prize in recent years, with American scientists being included among the winners of 17 of the past 20 awards.

This year’s Nobel announcements started Monday with the medicine prize going to John Gurdon of Britain and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka for their work on reprogramming cells. Frenchman Serge Haroche and American David Wineland won the physics prize Tuesday for work on quantum particles.

The Nobel Prizes were established in the will of 19th-century Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. The awards are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896.