Great interest - the key to the Nobel Prize

[2012-12-20] Smart, down to earth and soft-spoken: This is how Petter Gustafsson, Professor in Molecular Biology, describes his good friend Professor Brian K. Kobilka, one of this year’s Nobel Laureates in chemistry. On December 12, Kobilka visited Umeå University together with his wife Tong Sun Kobilka.

Kobilka gave a lecture about his award-winning discoveries at the almost fully seated Aula Nordica. Step by step, he described how he discovered and learned more and more about G-protein–coupled receptors, molecules in the cell membrane that receive signals from their environment.

After 20 years of hard work, Kobilka and his colleagues finally succeeded to show how the structure of the receptor complex looks like in the active phase. A sensational discovery that was published in Nature magazine last year.

After the lecture, Kobilka answered questions from the audience, wrote autographs and took pictures.

Connection to Sweden

It was thanks to Petter Gustafsson that the university succeeded to invite a Nobel Prize winner. The two met each other in 1991 when Gustafsson was a visiting professor at Stanford University, where Kobilka works.
“By chance, our sons were in the same football team, and we quickly became good friends,” Gustafsson says.

After that, Petter Gustafsson’s and Brian K. Kobilka’s families met regularly, and it was already Kobilka’s third visit in Umeå.

Non-academic background

Brian K. Kobilka has roots in Sweden three generations back on his mother's side. He grew up in a family without academic traditions, his father was a baker and his mother decorated the cakes. His father thought that being a baker was a hard job, and wished for his his son to chose a different career path.

And he did. In high school, Kobilkas inspiring and enthusiastic science teacher, in combination with an admiration for his hometown's doctors, awakened his dream to become a doctor.

He chose to study biology and chemistry at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, where he also met his future wife, Tong Sun, at a biology lecture. Here he discovered his interest in research, but anyway decided to attend medical school at Yale University.

In the mid-eighties, he went back to research and started working with Professor Robert J. Lefkowitz, which who he shares this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Dedication and patience

“You must be very, very interested in what you are doing to become a Nobel laureate,” says Brian K. Kobilka. “My long term goal has been to really find out how cell receptors act. It was a challenge and at the beginning, I did not know how hard it would be. I made some good strategic decisions, but I have also been lucky!”

He continues: “When I got my latest results published in Nature magazine, I realized that perhaps it could lead to a Nobel Prize one day. But that I would get it already one year later was a complete surprise to me!”

Even as an established researcher, Brian K. Kobilka still spends a lot of time in the laboratory, discussing experiments with colleagues and students. He continues his own experiments, collects data and harvests crystals.

Impact on modern medicine

Kobilka’s research will have an impact on modern medicine, as he explained at the press conference before the lecture: “The knowledge we have gained could lead to more selective drugs that go directly to their target, leading to less side effects.”

“It will also be easier to explain to patients how the drugs work in their bodies,” adds Tong Sun Kobilka, who is both a researcher and a physician.

Inspiration to young scientists

While in Umeå, Brian K. Kobilka also met with some high school students, doctoral students and researchers. He talked about his path to the Nobel Prize and reflected on luck and strategic decisions, followed by a discussion about research and career choices. “This is a great chance for young scientists, who can learn from Brian to make strategic decisions in their research,” Petter Gustafsson says gladly.

Editor: Ingrid Söderbergh

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