Albany Medical Center’s Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research is starting to seem like a prerequisite for future Nobel Prize-winning scientists.
Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, a scientist whose research into hormones and cell receptors broke ground for some of today’s common prescription drugs, was awarded the Nobel in chemistry just five years after he won Albany Med’s prize. The Bronx native’s Nobel designation comes less than a week after stem cell pioneer Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan — a 2011 recipient of the Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research — was announced as a winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Lefkowitz, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham N.C., was honored in Albany as one of three investigators who determined how cells communicate with their environment through the use of signaling pathways. Their discoveries helped give rise to a new and rapid phase of drug development, including many of today’s most commonly used prescription drugs.
“We are proud to be among those who have honored Dr. Lefkowitz for his transformational work, and we join in celebrating his well-deserved honors,” said James Barba, Albany Med’s president and chief executive officer. “His work has had profound impact on the development of new medications for so many people.”
The $500,000 Albany Prize is the largest award in medicine and science in the United States. In total, 21 world-renowned investigators have received the prestigious award since its inception in 2001.
Lefkowitz, who received an honorary degree from Albany Medical College in May 2008, was awarded this year’s Nobel in chemistry with his former colleague, Dr. Brian Kobilka. The two researchers made landmark discoveries on how cells 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. 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.”
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 earplugs. 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.
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 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.