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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Duke University landed its first home-grown Nobel Prize winner on Wednesday with the chemistry honor for research that led to better medicines, and the scientist said nothing was better than sharing it with a former student.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Wednesday honored Duke's Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka, now at Stanford University School of Medicine, for groundbreaking discoveries on how receptors on the surface of the body's cells work. About half of all medications act on these receptors.
Lefkowitz, 69, did all of his research since arriving at Duke in 1973. Kobilka, 57, worked for Lefkowitz at Duke before transferring to Stanford University, where he is now a professor.
Lefkowitz said he was accepting congratulations from at least the third member of the Nobel committee after their pre-dawn wakeup call before he realized he didn't know if he was sharing the award with another scientist. He was told it was Kobilka.
That news "was just the best. Perfect," Lefkowitz said. "I'm thrilled. I'm excited. I'm delighted to be sharing the award with a former student of mine, whom I admire and who I've very fond of."
Not long after that, the two men talked, as Lefkowitz said they do a couple of times each week.
"There wasn't a lot exchanged but what little was actually very moving. I had the feeling that this prize to me wouldn't have been possible without the work Kobilka did in the last 10 years," Lefkowitz said before pausing with emotion. "I said, 'You know Brian, there's no way this would have happened to me if it wasn't for your work.' He basically responded that obviously the opposite was true, as well."
Lefkowitz described their work as figuring out how to put together the right key for the right lock to get cells to start or stop doing something: Figuring out how the keys — molecules that circulate in the blood but have different shapes and sizes — can turn a lock to activate receptors on the outside surface of cells and regulate bodily processes.
Lefkowitz described himself as a native New Yorker, unreconstructed despite nearly four decades in the South, who can list the early 1950s New York Yankees' batting order and still judges an essay competition for students at his high school alma mater in the Bronx.
Though Lefkowitz is a teaching member of Duke's medical faculty, his salary and funding comes from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Founded and funded with part of the fortune of inventor Howard Hughes, the institute supports about 330 medical scientists around the country, including four at Duke. Their salaries and laboratories are paid by the institute, giving researchers independence to follow their evidence free from potential budget pressures or changing priorities at their home university or corporate sponsors.
Lefkowitz said he had an assistant professor job at Harvard University waiting before Duke medical school leaders started recruiting him. He assembled a list of demands he said were far beyond reasonable. He said he heard nothing for a month before Duke "called back and said we'll give you everything you're asking for."
Then he didn't get a raise to his $32,000 salary for four years.