One of two American researchers to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday is a Stanford University biochemist so enamored of a tiny sensor found in cells that he doggedly worked for 20 years to get its portrait -- yet, fearing he would fail, kept working as a doctor on weekends to pay the mortgage.
Dr. Brian Kobilka's work has revealed the secrets of the elusive sensors, called receptors, that enable the body to detect and react to chemical substances, such as hormones, poisons and drugs. About half of all medications act through these receptors, including medications for common heart ailments, allergies and mental disorders.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Kobilka, 57, and his mentor, Robert Lefkowitz, of Duke University, made a groundbreaking discovery by mapping out how an important family of these sensors, called G protein-coupled receptors, work.
Throughout modern medical history, scientists struggled to understand how cells communicate and sense changes in their environment. Lefkowitz and Kobilka solved this mystery in the 1980s, showing how receptors convey chemical messages from the outside world to the cell's interior.
Understanding the mechanism is critical to effective drug development, because medications work through cellular communication.
The academy's 2:30 a.m. call to his home startled Kobilka, a physician who is a professor and chairman of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford's School of Medicine.
"I didn't believe it at first, but after I spoke with about five people -- they handed the phone around -- with really convincing Swedish accents, I started to think it was for real," said Kobilka, in a Stanford news release.
At a Wednesday morning news conference, before a throng of media and admirers, Kobilka sat stiffly between Stanford president John Hennessy and Medical School Dean Dr. Philip Pizzo -- and, as if still stunned by the early morning phone call, he spoke quietly, sparingly choosing his words.
"I am not very comfortable doing this," he said. Then he relaxed, crediting everyone who helped and explaining the beauty of the work.
Colleagues describe Kobilka, who grew up in a rural Minnesota as the son of a baker, as a complex and fascinating character -- shy and modest in public but fiercely driven and intense in his research.
The Yale-educated cardiologist was a postdoctoral researcher at Duke in a large team led by co-winner and mentor Lefkowitz. They built the foundation of the Nobel work.
Lefkowitz first identified the receptor and discovered how it works. Kobilka isolated the gene that governs the receptor's behavior and took its picture. Their research has led to the discovery of a large family of receptors, with many different roles throughout the body.
Last year, Kobilka even got an image of the receptor at the very moment it transfers the signal from a hormone on the outside of the cell to the cell's interior.
"That's the Eureka moment that stands out above all others," he said Wednesday.
Kobilka had become fascinated by the receptors for adrenaline during his experience in a hospital intensive care unit.
He knew that a shot of adrenaline could be the difference between life and death -- opening up the swollen respiratory system and speeding up the heart rate. He sought to understand the power of epinephrine in its smallest molecular detail. And how did the body communicate in this time of crisis? That's what he wanted to know.
At Duke, he isolated the gene for receptors for adrenaline. And he analyzed its genetic code -- discovering, astonishingly, that the receptor winds its way back and forth through the cell wall seven times. He remembered that a different receptor did the same thing an identical number of times. This was his first Eureka moment: a family of receptors acting in the same manner.
Kobilka was recruited by Stanford to join its fledgling Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology.
He had been headed toward a career in cardiology. But soon after his arrival at Duke, he had the chance to do research. "I fell in love with the process."
He kept practicing medicine, even early on at Stanford, "moonlighting on weekends to pay the mortgage," he said.
"I was afraid I might fail at research," he said.
The Palo Alto resident lives with his microbiologist wife, Tong Sun, and they have two adult children.
Kobilka said he would put his half of the $1.2 million award toward retirement or "pass it on to my kids."
The Associated Press also contributed to this story.
The Nobel Prize awarded Wednesday to Stanford Professor Brian Kobilka brought the school's total number of honorees to 26.
Stanford's first Nobel Prize winner was Felix Bloch, honored in 1952 with Edward Mills Purcell "for their development of new methods for nuclear magnetic precision measurements and discoveries in connection therewith."
UC Berkeley counts 22 and the University of California system has 58 affiliated faculty and researchers awarded a total of 59 Nobels.
UC's first Nobel medal went to Ernest O. Lawrence in 1939 for "for the invention and development of the cyclotron and for results obtained with it, especially with regard to artificial radioactive elements."
Dr. Brian Kobilka
Sharing 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry
Palo Alto resident
Runs marathons: 3:55 time in a San Diego marathon this year.
Relaxation: Weekend bicycling up Page Mill Road to Skyline Drive and other rigorous routes. "If there's a road in the Bay Area, he's probably been on it," said his son, Jason.
What does his work mean?: Understanding the structure of receptors may be useful for the development of more effective drugs for many diseases.
Appreciation: "Stanford has been a remarkable place. I am not sure how I managed to land here, but I did. It was probably the only place that offered me a job. You might have an idea that might be crazy -- but people here help you do it."