UW Today

October 18, 2012

2012 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Brian Kobilka will speak at UW Oct. 23

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

Brian Kobilka at his home in California the morning he learned he would receive the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.Stanford University

Dr. Brian Kobilka, the co-recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, will speak at the UW Health Sciences Center Tuesday, Oct. 23.  His talk, which starts at 10:30 a.m. in Hogness Auditorium, is free and open to all, with an informal reception starting at 10 am.

There will also be a live video feed of Kobilka’s presentation shown in Orin Smith Auditorium at UW Medicine South Lake Union, 815 Republican, Seattle.

The Department of Biochemistry is sponsoring his lecture, which is on his latest findings in the research that earned him international scientific acclaim.

“It’s not often,” noted the departmental e-mail announcement, “that an invited speaker [for the regular biochemistry weekly seminar series] receives a Nobel Prize two weeks before the seminar. We are excited to share this event with the broader UW community.”

Kobilka, professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, learned Oct. 10 that he and Dr. Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University would share the Nobel Prize. They are being honored for their discoveries about the structure and function of a common but sophisticated signal interceptor on the membranes of living cells.

Known as G protein-coupled receptors, they play a key role in the physiology and neurobiology of all animals.

Dr. Wim Hol, UW professor of biochemistry and the host for Kobilka’s lecture, noted that there are more than 1,000 different G protein-coupled receptors in mammals.  In describing their basic shape and location in living cells, he said they have seven transmembrane helices. He explained that the receptors are activated by odorants, by neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, by neuropeptides, by light, or by certain types of proteins.

“G protein-coupled receptors are crucial for motion, emotion, behavior, vision, memory, reproduction, and most other physiological processes,” he said. Their importance is reflected in the fact that about 40 percent of medications – including widely prescribed drugs for high blood pressure and asthma – act via a G protein-coupled receptor.

Brian Kobilka at his molecular and cellular physiology lab at Stanford University. Kobilka trained as an internal medicine physician before going into basic science research.Linda C. Cicero/Stanford University

Despite being targets for many therapeutic drugs, the molecular architecture of G protein-coupled receptors has been difficult for scientists to obtain.  Kobilka not only solved, in atomic detail, the three-dimensional structures of several G protein-coupled receptors, he also unraveled how these receptors interact with G proteins, their partners in the cascade of cell signals. This was a major advance in the understanding of how the brain cells known as neurons communicate.

The title of Kobilka’s Oct. 23 talk is, “Structural insights into the dynamic process of G protein-coupled receptor activation.”

An explanation for the general public from the Nobel Committee about the significance of G protein-coupled receptors can be seen in a video at the Nobel website. Be prepared to have some of your G protein-coupled receptors activated by adrenaline at the start of the explanation.

Kobilka was born in 1955 in Little Falls, Minn., where his father ran a bakery. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and earned an M.D. with honors from Yale University. He did his residency in internal medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, Barnes Hospital, in St. Louis. He then was a postdoctoral research fellow under Lefkowitz at Duke University. He has been on the Stanford University faculty since 1989, and worked weekends as an emergency department physician during his first few years in California. Additional information on Kobilka’s background and his research can be found at the Nobel website.

More good reading: A profile of Kobilka appeared last year in Nature magazine.