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October 10, 2012
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UMD Alumnus Brian K. Kobilka Receives Nobel Prize for Chemistry Research

Brian KobilkaBrian Kobilka
Today, UMD graduate Brian Kobilka won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry, along with another U.S. scientist, for studies about how cells in our body sense their environments. These studies are key for developing better drugs.

Kobilka shares the prize with fellow American Robert Lefkowitz. Kobilka graduated summa cum laude from UMD in 1977 with bachelor of science degrees in biology and chemistry.

Kobilka obtained his medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine in 1981, trained in internal medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis (1981-1984) and served as a research fellow (1984-1989) and assistant professor (1988-1989) at the Duke University School of Medicine. In 1989 Kobilka joined the faculty of the Stanford University School of Medicine where currently he is professor of medicine, and molecular and cellular physiology. He was inducted into the UMD Academy of Science and Engineering in 2005.

Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Maryland who shares the prize, is also a professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

About Kobilka's Cell Research
In the 1980s, the two men worked to identify one G-protein-coupled receptor family member called the beta-adrenergic receptor. Kobilka's great feat was to isolate the gene for the receptor to learn more about its composition. In 2011, he and his team were the first to obtain a three-dimensional image of another receptor family member bound to its signaling molecule.

"It was so exciting to see this three-dimensional structure and finally know how these transmembrane regions interact during signaling," said Kobilka.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Lefkowitz and Kobilka had made groundbreaking discoveries. About half of all medications act on these receptors, including beta blockers and antihistamines, so learning about them will help scientists to come up with better drugs.

The human body has about 1,000 kinds of such receptors, structures on the surface of cells, which let the body respond to a wide variety of chemical signals, like adrenaline. Some receptors are in the nose, tongue and eyes, and let us sense smells, tastes and light.

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 cell surfaces had some type of receptor for hormones. Using radioactivity, Lefkowitz managed to unveil receptors including the receptor for adrenaline, and started to understand how it works.

Kobilka and his team realized that there is a whole family of receptors that look alike -- a family that is now called G-protein-coupled receptors.

In 2011, Kobilka achieved another breakthrough when his team captured an image of the receptor for adrenaline at the moment when it is activated by a hormone and sends a signal into the cell. The academy called the image "a molecular masterpiece."

About Kobilka
Kobilka was born and raised in the Little Falls, Minn. area. He met his future wife, Tong Sun Thian, in biology class at UMD. Kobilka and Tong Sun did research in a developmental biology lab at UMD.

UMD chemistry professor Robert Carlson had Kobilka in organic chemistry for a full year. "Brian was in the chemistry honors program," said Carlson. "He was such a good student we knew we needed to do something special to help him with his honors research project. Biology Professor Conrad Firling and I set up a collaboration so Brian could do chemistry and molecular biology research. It was the first time we set up that kind of interdisciplinary cooperation."

"Brian was an incredibly nice guy," said Carlson." It was very clear Brian was someone special."

For years, Firling has said that Kobilka deserves the Nobel Prize. "He was a fantastic student, very brilliant, and a tremendous athlete," said Firling. "I talked about Brian in class to get students excited about research."

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