A deserved Nobel? Absolutely. But the grousing has already started. The 2012 Nobel Prize for Chemistry has gone to Bob Lefkowitz (Duke) and Brian Kobilka (Stanford) for GPCRs, G-protein coupled receptors.
Update: here’s an excellent overview of Kobilka’s career and research.
Everyone who’s done drug discovery knows what GPCRs are, and most of us have worked on molecules to target them at one point or another. At least a third of marketed drugs, after all, are GPCR ligands, so their importance is hard to overstate. That’s why I say that this Nobel is completely deserved (and has been anticipated for some time now). I’ve written about them numerous times here over the years, and I’m going to forgo the chance to explain them in detail again. For more information I can recommend the Nobel site’s popular background and their more detailed scientific background – they’ve already done the explanatory work.
I will say a bit about where GPCRs fit into the world of drug targets, though, since they’ve been so important to pharma R&D.; Everyone had realized, for decades (more like centuries), that cells had to be able to send signal to each other somehow. But how was this done? No matter what, there had to be some sort of transducer mechanism, because any signal would arrive on the outside of the cell membrane and then (somehow) be carried across and set off activity inside the cell. As it became clear that small molecules (both the body’s own and artificial ones from outside) could have signaling effects, the idea of a “receptor” became inescapable. But it’s worth remembering that up until the mid-1970s you could find people – in print, no less – warning readers that the idea of a receptor as a distinct physical object was unproven and could be an unwarranted assumption. Everyone knew that molecular signals were being handled somehow, but it was very unclear what (or how many) pieces there were to the process. This year’s award recognizes the lifting of that fog.
It also recognizes something else very important, and here I want to rally my fellow chemists. As I mentioned above, the complaints are already starting that this is yet another chemistry prize that’s been given to the biologists. But this is looking at things the wrong way around. Biology isn’t invading chemistry – biology is turning into chemistry. Giving the prize this year to Lefkowitz and Kobilka takes us from the first cloning of a GPCR (biology, biology all the way) to a detailed understanding of their molecular structure (chemistry!) And that’s the story of molecular biology for you, right there. As it lives up to its name, its practitioners have had to start thinking of their tools and targets as real, distinct molecules. They have shapes, they have functional groups, they have stereochemistry and localized charges and conformations. They’re chemicals. That’s what kept occurring to me at the recent chemical biology conference I attended: anyone who’s serious about understanding this stuff has to understand it in terms of chemistry, not in terms of “this square interacts with this circle, which has an arrow to this box over here, which cycles to this oval over here with a name in the middle of it. . .” Those old schematics will only take you so far.
So, my fellow chemists, cheer the hell up already. Vast new territories are opening up to our expertise and our ways of looking at the world, and we’re going to be needed to understand what to do next. Too many people are making me think of those who objected to the Louisiana Purchase or the annexation of California, who wondered what we could possibly ever want with those trackless wastelands to the West and how they could ever be part of the country. Looking at molecular biology and sighing “But it’s not chemistry. . .” misses the point. I’ve had to come around to this view myself, but more and more I’m thinking it’s the right one.