Two Americans shared this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for deciphering the communication system that the human body uses to sense the outside world and send messages to cells — for example, speeding the heart when danger approaches. The understanding is aiding the development of new drugs.
The winners — Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz, 69, a professor at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher, and Dr. Brian K. Kobilka, 57, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California — will split $1.2 million.
Lefkowitz and Kobilka filled in a major gap in the understanding of how cells work and respond to outside signals.
"It's a great tribute to human ingenuity and helping us learn intricate details of what goes on in our bodies," said Bassam Shakhashiri, president of the American Chemical Society.
Scientists already knew, for example, that stress hormones such as adrenaline trigger the body's fight-or-flight reflex — focusing vision, quickening breathing, diverting blood away from less urgent body systems such as the digestive tract — but adrenaline never enters the cells.
"A receptor was correctly assumed to be involved," said Sven Lidin, a member of the Nobel Prize committee for chemistry during a news conference Wednesday, "but the nature of this receptor and how it reacted remained a mystery for a long time."