Interview with Robert J. Lefkowitz

“It’s just such a boost for the people in the lab, they work so hard every day …”

Transcript of the telephone interview with Robert J. Lefkowitz following the announcement of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 10 October 2012. The interviewer is’s Adam Smith.

[Robert Lefkowitz] Hello.

[Adam Smith] Hello there, this is Adam Smith from

[RL] Yes

[AS] So, we have a tradition of interviewing new Laureates very briefly for the website. Could we talk for just a very few minutes?

[RL] Sure. It’ll be my pleasure.

[AS] Thank you very much, indeed. First of all, sincere congratulations on the award.

[RL] Well, thank you, it’s a very exciting day, needless to say.

[AS] It must be, in fact, in fact I’ve been talking since the announcement with my old friend Richard Bond from Houston, who’s been …

[RL] Oh yes! I love Richard, he’s an old buddy of mine.

[AS] Indeed, and he’s been describing that he’s been hearing about the scenes of jubilation that are going on in your lab and it’s crammed with people.

[RL] Absolutely, and it’s, when I got in this morning, it was a bit late as I’ve been doing phone interviews from home, and they had balloons up, they greeted me outside. It’s just such a boost, you know, for the people in the lab. You know, they work so hard everyday and to see recognition for what we’ve been doing over the years, even if, you know, it was done by the apprentices, is a huge source of pride and excitement for all of them.

[AS] It must be absolutely wonderful. I guess it must played havoc with the plans for the day, but that’s another story.

[RL] Oh absolutely. In fact, I was supposed to get a haircut at one o’clock today, which I badly need. If you had video, I’m sure you’d agree. But instead, I have a news conference to do. So the haircut will have to wait a day or two. But in addition to the people in the lab, everybody, you know, people are just walking in here, colleagues who have known me for years. I sense an immense sense of institutional pride. We’ve not had a Nobel Prize at Duke. We’re a relatively young institution at 75 years, which pales by comparison with things like Harvard or Princeton, this kind of thing. So, I think, for everybody at the institution, I think everybody is sort of feeling real good about it.

[AS] And, indeed, there seems to be a worldwide celebration, because your lab, of course, has been working on GPCRs for four decades. It has spawned an awful lot of people who have gone out to other places and the whole field seems to be happy there’s an award now.

[RL] I think so, and I think, as you will probably know better than many, the Nobel Prizes are often seen as, of course, awards to individuals. But beyond that they are recognition often of a field. So everybody in the field feels good about it. Especially, if they feel good about the particular people from the field who are getting the award. And I really do think that, you know, the kind of contributions that Brian and I have made over the years are generally regarded, you know, very positively and as being important in the field, you know, everybody in field really feels good about it.

[AS] Those four decades have really been a golden era for the discovery of neurotransmitter receptors.

[RL] Absolutely, the whole idea that there might such receptors goes back a century but interestingly, when I started doing my work, forty years ago, there was still huge scepticism as to whether things like receptors really existed. Even from some of the people who were central in pharmacology. And in the very early years of the work there was a lot of push back in terms of, whether you can really do this, you’re isolating receptors, how do we know they are receptors? And now, of course, to my students and fellows, they are surprised to hear there was ever such scepticism.

[AS] [Laughs] Yes, because your isolation and then the sequencing the beta-2-adrenoceptor, really, well it was the first isolation and it sort gave the Rosetta Stone through which everybody else was able decode the dozens of others receptors.

[RL] I think this is exactly right. And, you know, like so many contributions in science, it took years. It took us a decade to get these receptors isolated. And then another number of years, to get them cloned. So you’re talking fifteen years to get to that point. And similarly with Kobilka’s recent crystal structures, you can throw in another 10, 15 years there. So I mean, it’s tough. It really is.

[Both laugh]

[AS] It takes time, it takes perseverance.

[RL] Exactly.

[AS] Now, it was during the sequencing of the beta-2-adrenoceptor project that Brian Kobilka joined your lab.

[RL] Yes, exactly, he was a fellow working in my laboratory. We were collaborating with a lab in Edmurk. And we had already purified the receptor, and together with them we had quite these little stretches of protein sequence, which was truly the Rosetta Stone which allowed the cloning. The whole key to the whole thing was that decade of work to get those receptors purified. And so Kobilka, in my lab, was the fellow leading the cloning work, not the original biochemistry. Then we were collaborating with a group at Edmurk. That was sort of his baptism of fire, so to speak. And so he was very active in that research. He was in my lab for, really, about five year all together, and had a very productive time. It was clear to me then that he was a very, very special guy.

[AS] Well it’s funny, because he’s disarmingly quiet. He’s such a self-effacing chap.

[RL] Oh my goodness, I think he’s painfully shy. I think that’s why he’s very self-effacing and that’s just his personality. I hope he can really enjoy this today and the next month or two, because this is not his comfort zone, I would say.

[AS] Yes, exactly, in fact we spoke to him earlier and he was expressing the fact that he thought he probably wouldn’t enjoy what about to come.

[RL] Yes, I think that’s correct.

[AS] But hopefully he’ll enjoy the trip to Stockholm.

[RL] Well I’m sure he will.

[AS] But in the meantime, we should leave you to enjoy your celebrations. And unlike Brian Kobilka you sound like the kind of person who will enjoy the next few days.

[RL] Indeed, I intend to enjoy this day to the fullest.

[AS] [Laughs] I’ll let you get on with it then. Thank you very much for speaking to us.

[RL] Okay, thank you. Bye bye.

[AS] Bye bye.

Listen to the Interview

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