Nobel Prizes go to alumni Robert Lefkowitz and Alvin Roth

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Robert J. Lefkowitz ’62CC, ’66PS arrives at his Duke offi ce on October 10 shortly after learning that he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. / AP Photo / Ted Richardson

Among the nine intellectuals who traveled to Stockholm to receive Nobel Prizes on December 10 were two Columbians: Robert J. Lefkowitz ’62CC, ’66PS and Alvin E. Roth ’71SEAS.

Lefkowitz, a professor at Duke University Medical Center, was awarded the prize in chemistry jointly with Stanford’s Brian K. Kobilka for describing how tiny receptors in cell membranes can detect chemicals on the outside of a cell and then translate that information into useful instructions on the inside. The insight is now a cornerstone of drug research.

“Bob Lefkowitz changed our knowledge of one of the most important pathways of the human body,” said Robert S. Kass, a Columbia pharmacology professor, shortly after the prize was announced in October.

Alvin E. Roth, a longtime Harvard professor who was recently recruited away to Stanford, shares the prize in economics with Lloyd S. Shapley, a retired UCLA professor. They were honored for developing new ways to distribute goods or services in situations where no money is exchanged, such as in assigning children to popular public schools or in allocating donated organs to people who await transplants.

“The combination of Shapley’s basic theory and Roth’s empirical investigations, experiments, and practical design has generated a flourishing field of research and improved the performance of many markets,” reads a statement from the Nobel Foundation. “This year’s prize is awarded for an outstanding example of economic engineering.”

Lefkowitz and Roth are each sharing a $1.2 million prize with their co-winner.

Cells and sensibility

Robert Lefkowitz was a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health in the late 1960s when he took up a problem that had baffled scientists for decades: how the billions of individual cells in our bodies detect what is happening outside the confines of their own cell membranes. Scientists had long suspected that these membranes must contain receptors; this had seemed apparent since the late nineteenth century, when scientists first observed that cells respond to the presence of hormones like adrenaline without allowing those hormones to permeate them. But scientists had failed to spot any such receptors.

“When I started doing my work, there was still some skepticism as to whether receptors really existed,” says Lefkowitz, a Bronx native who graduated at the top of his class at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1966.

Lefkowitz hypothesized that the receptors were simply too small to have yet been seen and he searched for them using a novel experimental approach: he attached radioactive iodine to hormone molecules, which enabled him to monitor each molecule’s path. If a molecule attached itself to a cell membrane, he would bring all his analytic firepower to bear on that spot.

Over the next few years, Lefkowitz and his research team achieved a series of breakthroughs that virtually defined the nascent field of receptor biology. They showed, for instance, that a typical cell receptor consists of an extremely long amino-acid chain wrapped up like a bundle of rope; that the receptor is embedded in a cell membrane like a plug, with one end protruding from the membrane and the other anchored to its inner surface; and that when the exposed end of the receptor is stimulated by a molecule, the shape of the entire receptor changes in a way that triggers a cascade of metabolic activity inside the cell.

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