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AU Professor and Students Meet with Nobel Laureate Brian Kobilka

Nobel Laureate Brian Kobilka (center) meeting with AU biochemistry professor Stefano Costanzi and chemistry students at the National Institutes of Health.

Nobel Laureate Brian Kobilka (center) meeting with AU biochemistry professor Stefano Costanzi and chemistry students at the National Institutes of Health.

“I think that was the coolest conversation I ever experienced. It reminded me why I wanted to be a chemist in the first place,” recounted Samiye Yaman, chemistry ’13. 

It’s not every day you get a chance to meet a Nobel Prize winner. But students in professor Stefano Costanzi’s chemistry class recently got a chance to do just that. 

On April 26, Costanzi, professor of biochemistry at American University and a former intramural scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with several of his research students, joined Brian Kobilka at a private meeting at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. 

Robert Lefkowitz and Kobilka won the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their pioneering and revolutionary studies that led to our current understanding of the structure and functioning of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), a family of cellular sensors that constitute the target of a large share of drugs on the market. 

Kobilka, an MD and a professor of molecular and cellular physiology and medicine at Stanford University, was being honored with the John Daly Lecture Award, which NIH bestows annually in memory of John Daly, a former NIH scientist who contributed enormously to the field of GPCRs. The award was presented in 2011 to Lefkowitz, who like Kobilka is an MD. Lefkowitz is also an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the James B. Duke Professor of Medicine at Duke University. 

In his Daly lecture, Kobilka presented an insightful overview of recent discoveries that have led to a major leap forward in understanding how GPCRs function at a molecular level and some of the hot issues in this field of study. 

"Brian Kobilka's John Daly lecture gave us a quick tour inside the structure and function of G protein-coupled receptor and enabled us to see the magic from close up," said Yaman. "I also really enjoyed listening to Dr. Costanzi talking with him in our private meeting."

Added Swati Samtani, biology ’13: "It was a great privilege and an enlightening experience to hear from Dr. Brian Kobilka about how our understanding of GPCRs has advanced in the last 20 years and the research being conducted today. Fortunately, we got the opportunity to discuss our research with Dr. Kobilka as well. During this time, I found him to be an attentive listener with strong views who asked several insightful questions." 

Costanzi has been actively involved in the study of GPCRs for many years and has made many important contributions to the field, most notably in relation to the development of three-dimensional models of receptors and their application to computer-aided drug discovery. Among the research Costanzi and his students discussed with Kobilka was a cutting-edge project conducted in collaboration with Lefkowitz seeking selective GPCR modulators that could bring about the development of cardiovascular drugs devoid of undesirable side effects. 

Due to their pharmaceutical relevance, for decades GPCRs have been the object of intense investigative efforts intended to unveil their functioning and their three- dimensional structure, with the aim of providing a solid platform for the discovery and design of novel drugs expressly tailored to specific targets, Costanzi noted. 

Following the event at NIH, Costanzi and a small group of NIH scientists joined Kobilka and his wife, Tong Su Kobilka, who is also a scientist, at a local restaurant. There they heard about the life-changing experience of winning the Nobel Prize and discussed scientific issues of common interest. 

Keyun Wang, biochemistry ’13, summed up the unique experience at NIH this way: "Having the opportunity to meet and talk to an established Nobel Prize winner is phenomenal. This trip gave me an idea of what it is like to be actively involved in research."