Columbia College and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons alumnus Robert J. Lefkowitz, MD, PhD, has been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He shares the award with Brian K. Kobilka, MD, of Stanford University School of Medicine, for their work unveiling how an important group of receptors helps cells to sense their environment. Dr. Kobilka was a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Lefkowitz’s lab in the 1980s. Their work has driven an enormous field of pharmaceutical research and development.
Dr. Lefkowitz, who graduated from Columbia College in 1962, earned his MD from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1966. He also completed his internship and one year of general medical residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center (now Columbia University Medical Center). He is the second 1966 P&S graduate to win a Nobel Prize. Harold Varmus, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1989, was a P&S classmate. Dr. Lefkowitz is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
“On behalf of the entire Columbia community, I want to congratulate Dr. Robert Lefkowitz (CC’62, P&S ‘66) and his colleague Dr. Brian Kobilka for winning the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry,” said University President Lee C. Bollinger. “Dr. Lefkowitz, a graduate of both Columbia College and Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, joins a long line of distinguished alumni and faculty who have been honored by the Royal Swedish Academy over the past century. His discovery of how cells receive and react to certain information led to an entirely new direction for pharmaceutical research and a multitude of new treatments for human diseases. We are especially gratified that as a double Columbia alumnus, Dr. Lefkowitz has continued to be actively involved in the university by serving on our medical school’s Board of Advisors. This is a day for all of us to recognize the invaluable contributions to society made by research scientists and to celebrate the special achievement represented by Robert Lefkowitz’s pioneering work.”
“Bob is one of our most active alums and a friend of many of us on the Columbia faculty. We are delighted that he joins the ranks of P&S graduates who have gone on to win Nobel prizes,” said Lee Goldman, MD, Executive Vice President for Health and Biomedical Sciences and Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine. “He is the kind of physician-scientist P&S prides itself on nurturing and the kind of intellectually probing person our curriculum is designed to foster.”
Honored at a P&S alumni event in 2011, Dr. Lefkowitz said he was inspired by his family practitioner to become a physician. “To me, medicine was like a priesthood. I always thought it was the highest and noblest thing you could do in life.”
But a stint as a research associate, or one of the so-called “Yellow Berets,” at the NIH made him, as he said, “addicted to data.” Pursuing a residency in cardiovascular disease at Harvard, he felt a craving for the thrill of research and subsequently accepted an offer to join the faculty at Duke. And though he ultimately turned to research, he still feels that “being a physician is just the greatest thing in the world. When I write down my occupation, I still write down physician.”
Reflecting on the keys to his success, he observed, “The same things that made me successful as a physician made me good at research. The four keys are focus, focus, focus, and you can figure out the fourth,” he quipped. “Persistence also helped.
“Bob Lefkowitz is someone who changed our knowledge of one of the most important pathways of the human body,” said Robert S. Kass, PhD, the Alumni and David Hosack Professor of Pharmacology (in the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior) and Chair of the Department of Pharmacology, and P&S Vice Dean for Research.
The work of Drs.Lefkowitz and Kobilka enabled the development of many new treatments for a wide range of diseases. Pharmaceuticals that bind and activate the receptors they discovered include beta-blockers, ulcer drugs, cortisone, and antihistamines. The receptors, called G-protein-coupled-receptors, or GPCRs, are embedded in the cell membrane and cause important chemical cascades when a target molecule attaches to them. That target could be anything from a hormone such as adrenaline to neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Today G-coupled proteins play a role in about half of all medicines.
More information is available at http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/2012/.
A detailed biography of Lefkowitz is published at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195491/.