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Drugs such as beta blockers, antihistamines and various psychiatric medicines have been around for some time, but before Lefkowitz and Kobilka’s discoveries, their impact on the human body wasn’t fully understood, said Sven Lidin, chairman of the prize committee.
"All we knew was that they worked, but we didn’t know why," Lidin said. There is hope that the Nobel-winning research will lead to new medicines, he added.
A glance at the Nobel Prize for chemistry
Who won? » Americans Robert Lefkowitz of the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, and Brian Kobilka of the Stanford University School of Medicine in California
For what? » The two won the prize for their discoveries in an important family of receptors, known as G-protein-coupled receptors.
The significance? » Learning about G-protein-coupled receptors will help scientists come up with better drugs since about half of all medications including beta blockers and antihistamines act on these receptors.
What they said? » Lefkowitz: “I’m feeling very, very excited...I did not hear (the phone ring)...I wear earplugs, so my wife gave me an elbow. And there it was. .... It was a total shock and surprise.” Kobilka: “They passed the phone around and congratulated me. I guess they do that so you actually believe them. When one person calls you, it can be a joke, but when five people with convincing Swedish accents call you, then it isn’t a joke.”
Mark Downs, chief executive of Britain’s Society of Biology, said the critical role receptors play is now taking for granted.
"This groundbreaking work spanning genetics and biochemistry has laid the basis for much of our understanding of modern pharmacology as well as how cells in different parts of living organisms can react differently to external stimulation, such as light and smell, or the internal systems which control our bodies such as hormones," Downs said in a statement.
The U.S. has dominated the Nobel chemistry prize in recent years, with American scientists being included among the winners of 17 of the past 20 awards.
This year’s Nobel announcements started Monday with the medicine prize going to stem cell pioneers John Gurdon of Britain and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka. Frenchman Serge Haroche and American David Wineland won the physics prize Tuesday for work on quantum particles.
The Nobel Prizes were established in the will of 19th-century Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. The awards are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896.
AP Science Writer Malcolm Ritter in New York and AP writers Amanda Kwan in Phoenix, Jack Jones in Columbia, South Carolina, and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.
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