2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

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)

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4 Responses to 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

  1. Nice take on this Matt. I find myself increasingly puzzled by these complaints (which seem to have started in 2006 when Kornberg won the prize). Crystallographers have always won the Nobel Prize in chemistry beginning in 1962 but I have not read about chemists complaining about those prizes. And as I say in my post, chemistry is the study of structure – any structure – and function. So why gripe when a prize is awarded for the study of structure?

  2. sciencegeist says:

    Hey Ash, Thanks. I meant to put a link to your post as well, but its been a fast action morning.
    I agree. Chemistry is many things.
    The other thing I wanted to mention in the post, but didn’t get to because I rushed it, was that it seems that the Nobels are one way in which our work is vindicated. Whether we (or people we know) win it or not, the Nobel prizes give our work credence. The farther away the prize is from our work, the less likely we feel we will be recognized. Anyway, I think that there is some of this type of angst going on as well. I could be very wrong about this.

  3. Paul says:

    I’m going to sidestep the Nobel news and focus on the journalism issue.

    While I find them annoying, no disdainful comment or opinion from anyone in the “mainstream” media—chemistry-related or not—is going to make me question whether I publish good, solid pieces of journalism on the blog. One great thing about the Internet is that I have a very good idea of how many readers each blog post reaches, and I know that people come to the blog to find news they can’t get anywhere else. Is there a higher compliment in journalism than earning the active interest of an intelligent audience?

    Also, in spite of all the interest generated by Nobel predictions, no month has come close to the traffic generated in July 2011 with the “Sezen Files” series. People were coming to the blog for details they couldn’t find anywhere else. It doesn’t matter if it is a blog or magazine, people will go where the news is presented well.

  4. Matt says:

    Thanks, Paul. I actually used this same reference point when Erika and I were discussing it. Exceedingly valuable stuff that you put together. Your efforts are something that I revere and look to for inspiration.
    Keep up the good fight!

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