UMD alumnus wins Nobel Prize

For the first time ever, a graduate of UMD is taking home one of the most recognized awards in the world: the Nobel Prize. Brian Kobilka, along with his research partner Robert Lefkowitz, received the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work in G-protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs, and how they convey chemical messages into the cell’s interior from the outside through membranes.

In simpler terms, this means that Kobilka has discovered a new part to human cells that physically recognize our environment and respond to it.

“He basically looked at our fight or flight responses,” said Robert Carlson, professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UMD, and a former professor of Kobilka’s. “He determined how and why our nerve cells could respond as quickly as they do. This opens up so many fields of information of what happens on the surface of a cell.”

For 30 years Kobilka and his partner have been studying GPCRs, but it wasn’t until last year that they had a breakthrough when they were able to crystallize a receptor bound by signaling molecules. This means they were able to produce a three-dimensional image of the protein receptor, and how it was bound to its receiving molecule.

According to scientists like Conrad Firling, a retired UMD professor of Biology and another professor of Kobilka’s, this discovery also helps us understand more about how drugs work. This, in the long run, can allow us to change drugs and make them less toxic, or even more customizable to the person.

“I don’t think students recognize what’s going on,” Firling said. “I don’t think they understand how big this actually is. What he’s done is truly amazing.”

After graduating from high school in Little Falls, Minn., Kobilka came to UMD as an undergraduate in 1973. After four years he left UMD with a bachelor’s degree in both Chemistry and Biology, with a double minor in Math and Physics.

“People use the term ‘a gentleman and a scholar,’ and that’s what he was,” Carlson said.

Kobilka is remembered by professors as a student who excelled in everything he did.

“He was such a humble guy, very quiet, but you knew,” Firling said. “You had such an appreciation for his intelligence.”

Kobilka took Firling’s biology class as a freshman, and after the fall semester was over requested to work in one of his research labs. After a semester of lab work, Firling said he was hooked.

Aside from lab work and homework, Kobilka also learned to play multiple instruments and became an avid cyclist while at UMD.

“He wasn’t at a level of Lance Armstong, but he was a very good cyclist,” Friling said. “Whenever he was in the lab, about 4 p.m. he would just shake. He wanted to get out for his daily ride.”

These daily rides, according to Firling, were commonly to Two Harbors and back.

After graduating from UMD, Kobilka went on to Yale University where he received his M.D. before moving on to Duke. In 1989 he switched from Duke to Stanford, where he currently resides with his wife, Tong Sun Kobilka, and teaches molecular and cellular physiology.

Kobilka and his partner will receive their reward in December at a ceremony held in Sweden. The King of Sweden is scheduled to present them with this award.


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