Sciencegeist: 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Originally posted October 10, 2012

Today the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for their work on G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs, for those of you who are new to this topic, are proteins that straddle cell membranes. In some sense, they are one conduit for transferring information from outside of the cell to the inside of the cell. Functionally, when a GPCR interacts with other, very specific, molecules that are outside of the cell, the GPCR reconfigures itself, or at least the portion of the GPCR that is inside of the cell. This changing of shape sets off a cascade of other events within the cell. Thus, the GPCR is capable of reporting to a cell that there are certain molecules lurking outside of its doors.

Obviously, this protein function has many implications for advancing technology as well as our basic understanding of how Life works. One of the most important implications, in terms of dollars and cents and employing thousands of chemists, is what these proteins mean to the pharmaceutical industry. For a fuller picture of this, please refer to some of the great reporting that Carmen Drahl has done for Chemical and Engineering News on GPCRs (here, here, and here). I’ll just one brief factlet to show how important GPCRs are to the pharmaceutical industry. Roughly one-third of all drugs, currently on the market, target GPCRs. And I would hazard to guess that the great majority of drugs currently being developed are attempting to target GPCR interactions.

But, with this award, there has already been some grumbling from within the field. One of the major points of contention has been: “But the winners aren’t even chemists!” My answer to that is, “Well, so what!” The discovery of GPCRs greatly affects the field of chemistry. For an entire portion of our field (those trying to make new pharmaceuticals), this topic DOMINATES their day to day life.


Watching all of this hand-wringin unfold, I am taken back two weeks to an argument I was having with my wife. We were having a discussion over whether bloggers are journalists. (Our argument was spurred by a quote covered in Paul’s blog.) My wife, who is a trained communications specialists, took the side of the argument that journalism is a form of communication that has: the power to inform and educate, the weight of an editorial overview, and the reach that has historically only been supplied by traditional media outlets. I disagreed and said that, while all blogging is not journalism and, certainly, all bloggers are not journalists, there are many instances of blogposts that are journalism. Bloggers can cover topics that editors can’t or won’t give space to. And, bloggers can write and inform with a quality that rivals many full-time journalists. She countered this by saying, “Well, what if a non-chemist made a discovery in chemistry and received a Nobel for it?” My answer to her was that if this person made a scientifically sound discovery, informed by quality technique and understanding, and that discovery changed the way chemistry is done, then I would be happy to give that person a chemistry award.


Well, today I am happy that these scientists won an award for their contributions to the field of chemistry. They have fundamentally altered the way chemistry is practiced all over the globe. Their work has driven the chemical economy and international economies. Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka are very deserving of this award, and I think that you would be hard pressed to find other topics that have had the effect on the field of chemistry that the understanding of GPCRs have had.

(Of course, Derek Lowe had to go and beat me to this post! Have a read at his. As always, it’s excellent. Also … I should have added these earlier … with excellent opinions on this are Ash and David)