- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 10, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) — Two Americans won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for studies of how the cells in our bodies pick up signals as diverse as hormones, smells, flavors and light – work that is key to developing better medicines.

Those signals are received by specialized proteins on cell surfaces. Dr. Robert Lefkowitz and Dr. Brian Kobilka made groundbreaking discoveries about the inner workings of those proteins, mainly in the 1980s, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

The proteins are called G-protein-coupled receptors. Many of today’s drugs – maybe about half – act on these receptors, including beta blockers and antihistamines. Experts say the prize-winning work and subsequent research is helping scientists as they try to improve current drugs and develop new ones.

The receptors pick up signals outside a cell and relay a message to the interior.

“They work as a gateway to the cell,” Lefkowitz told a news conference in Stockholm by phone. “As a result, they are crucial … to regulate almost every known physiological process with humans.”

Lefkowitz, 69, is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

Kobilka, 57, worked for Lefkowitz at Duke before transferring to Stanford University School of Medicine in California, where he is now a professor.

Lefkowitz said he was fast asleep when the Nobel committee called, but he didn’t hear the phone because he was wearing ear plugs. So his wife picked up.

“She said, `There’s a call here for you from Stockholm,’” Lefkowitz told The Associated Press. “I knew they ain’t calling to find out what the weather is like in Durham today.”

He said he didn’t have any “inkling” that he was being considered for the Nobel Prize.

“Initially, I expected I’d have this huge burst of excitement. But I didn’t. I was comfortably numb,” Lefkowitz said.

Kobilka said he found out around 2:30 a.m., after the Nobel committee called his home twice. He said he didn’t get to the phone the first time, but that when he picked up the second time, he spoke to five members of the committee.

“They passed the phone around and congratulated me,” Kobilka told AP. “I guess they do that so you actually believe them. When one person calls you, it can be a joke. But when five people with convincing Swedish accents call you, then it isn’t a joke.”

He said he would put his half of the 8 million kronor ($1.2 million) award toward retirement or “pass it on to my kids.”

The academy said it was long a mystery how cells interact with their environment and adapt to new situations, such as when they react to adrenaline by increasing blood pressure and making the heart beat faster.

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