Although he has spent his entire academic career at Duke, newly minted Nobel Laureate Robert Lefkowitz got his start at Columbia.
Lefkowitz received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for his groundbreaking research on how cells’ receptors react to hormones and drugs. Lefkowitz graduated from The Bronx High School of Science in 1959, Columbia College in 1962, and Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1966.
Lefkowitz, a professor of medicine, collaborated with Stanford professor Brian Kobilka on the research. Kobilka, who is also receiving a Nobel Prize, was a postdoctoral fellow in Lefkowitz’s lab at Duke University from 1984 to 1989.
“Even after 40 years of living in Durham, I’m a New Yorker at heart,” Lefkowitz said at a Duke press conference Wednesday.
At the press conference, Lefkowtiz said that he never expected to receive a chemistry award, although he noted that his work “is very much at the boundary” between medicine and chemistry. The ways that cells sense their environment baffled researchers for decades, and it was not until Lefkowitz identified specific cell receptors in 1968 that scientists started to understand how hormones and cells interact.
During the 1980s, Kobilka contributed to Lefkowitz’s ongoing project, comparing cell receptors to the receptors in the eye that recognize light. Kobilka showed that there is an entire family of cell receptors that resemble one another and have similar functions, according to the Nobel Prize’s website.
The family of receptors that Lefkowitz and Kobilka identified is now known as “G-protein-coupled receptors.” Nearly half of the medicinal drugs currently on the market target these receptors.
“If you were a fly on the wall in 1973 and now, my daily activities wouldn’t look very different,” Lefkowitz said at the press conference. “I’m still just hard at it. The lab is bigger, but I’m doing what I’ve been doing—which is doing science, and interacting with my fellows, and just having a hell of a good time.”
Columbia College Dean James Valentini, a chemistry professor, lauded Lefkowitz for his accomplishments.
“Robert Lefkowitz is one of the great scientists who was trained at Columbia College,” Valentini said in an email. “He began the scientific journey that led to this tremendous accomplishment as a chemistry student in Havemeyer Hall, and went on to mentor other students at Duke. We are very proud of his extraordinary work.”
According to University statistics, Lefkowitz is the 81st Columbian to win a Nobel Prize, with President Barack Obama, CC ’83, having received the next most recent prize in 2009.
“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,” University President Lee Bollinger said in a statement. “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.”
Lefkowitz and Kobilka will be presented with their awards in Stockholm in December.