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Robert Lefkowitz discusses potential benefits of Nobel Prize for Duke

When Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, James B. Duke professor of medicine and professor of biochemistry and immunology, became the first Duke faculty member to win a Nobel Prize two weeks ago, many students on campus were taken by surprise.

But those close to Lefkowitz were not surprised by the Nobel Prize because his research has had a significant impact on the development of pharmaceutical drugs. Lefkowitz discovered and characterized G protein-coupled receptors, which are embedded in cell membranes. About 30 to 50 percent of pharmaceutical drugs on the market attach onto these receptors in order to treat a patient’s condition.

Instead, some students and faculty were surprised that Duke, which is so committed to scientific research, did not have previous faculty members receive a Nobel Prize.

“It’s surprising indeed,” Lefkowitz said. “Duke has risen to a point of prominence such that one might have anticipated they would have Nobel Prize winners, but for whatever reason, we haven’t.”

Lefkowitz’s work has enjoyed such a strong reputation over the last few decades that many people probably already thought he had won the Nobel Prize, said Peter Agre, former vice chancellor of science and technology who won the Nobel Prize in 2003 for his discovery of aquaporins—a type of protein—while serving as a professor of biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“There are plenty of scientists at Duke doing work that are clearly worthy of a Nobel,” he added. “But it’s a very strong endorsement on the world level that Duke has major league science.”

Coming into its own

Considering that few Nobel prizes are awarded each year, and that they can be awarded to any researcher in the world, it actually is not that surprising that Duke had not yet won the prize, Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of the School of Medicine, said. Duke is much younger than many other top East Coast universities it competes with in research, she added.

Agre noted that Stanford, the university of Brian Kobilka, Lefkowitz’s protege and co-prize winner, counts dozens of Nobel laureates among its faculty. Dr. Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of Duke University Health System, actually recruited Kobilka to Stanford from Duke in 1989 when Dzau was chair of the Department of Medicine at Stanford. Lefkowitz has spent his entire 40-year faculty career at Duke.

In contrast, the University has come into its own as a research institution for only the last few decades, a rise that paralleled Lefkowitz’s career trajectory from young faculty member to world-renowned scientist, said Dr. Mary Klotman, chair of the Department of Medicine at Duke.

The Nobel Prize enhances the reputation of the University as a whole and will probably draw more people to look at the University as a place to do research, Klotman said. She noted she was recently at the medical school at Baylor University and people kept approaching her to congratulate her on Lefkowitz’s Nobel Prize, since she and Lefkowitz are in the same department.

Dzau said the University’s current long-term approach to research funding encourages an investment in the best, young researchers and “unwavering support,” freedom and collaboration among other researchers. He added that this mission is validated by Duke’s first ever homegrown prize.

Klotman hires about 50 new internal medicine staffers every year and is excited about the possibility of more researchers showing interest in coming to work at Duke. In the past, researchers have been drawn to the University because of Lefkowitz’s research, and the attention he has received as a Nobel Prize winner will only increase that, she noted. Researchers who are drawn to working under Lefkowitz are serious about science and their careers, and as an experienced scientific mentor, he knows how to guide them into a lifelong career in science, Klotman said.

“The fact is, when you have someone who has that level of scientific excellence, then people want to be associated with that type of scientific excellence,” said Dr. Howard Rockman, professor of medicine and cell biology and Lefkowitz’s colleague.

A homegrown prize

Most top young scientists and researchers were probably already looking at the University prior to Lefkowitz winning the Nobel Prize, Agre said. But having a Nobel Prize winner walking among undergraduate students on campus will add something special to the atmosphere at the University, he noted.

“Bob goes to basketball games, he goes to the campus diner,” Agre said. “He’s around. He’ll add a little special flavor.”

The University, especially the Medical Center, is already so committed to scientific research that it is already spending whatever dollars it can on research, Lefkowitz said.

Opinions differ among prize winners and campus leadership as to whether Lefkowitz’s Nobel Prize will impact the University’s external research funding at all. Some thought it would have no effect, since the University is near the top in research funding already, whereas others thought the prestige of the Nobel Prize can only help Duke receive more grants to Lefkowitz, his lab’s collaborators and other researchers at Duke.

“It will be tremendously helpful in all areas of funding,” Klotman said.

In the area of federal research dollars, the National Institutes of Health conducts a peer-reviewed process for its grants that probably will not be affected by the Nobel Prize, since the merit of his research was already apparent to the NIH peer reviewers, said Lefkowitz. Duke already ranks in the top 10 universities in research funding and nearly any scientific metric one could think of, Rockman said.

“I’d like to say it would [make a difference],” Kobilka said. “But I don’t really think it’s going to make that much of a difference. [Lefkowitz is] very well-funded.”

The shine of the Nobel Prize could also help current investigators at the University, Rockman added. The buzz around the Nobel Prize at the University could lead other investigators to new collaborations with Lefkowitz’s laboratory or to new projects of their own.

“That buzz and electric feeling around the school is amazing and delightful,” Rockman said.

Several faculty members agreed that the allure of the Nobel could attract more private research dollars to the University. The timing of the Nobel is great for the Duke Forward capital campaign, Klotman said.

“Maybe I’m being overly hopeful, but that there might be some philanthropic dollars that come to us by virtue of the prominence of a Nobel here at Duke,” Lefkowitz added.

Agre noted that, ultimately, the impact that Lefkowitz’s Nobel Prize will have on Duke is not as important as the impact it will have on future scientific research.

Lefkowitz said he is proud the University’s first Nobel Prize is a true home-grown achievement—it is common at many universities for professors to win the Nobel for work they accomplished at another university. That was the case with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Oliver Smithies, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his work on gel electrophoresis. Smithies actually developed the technique while working at the University of Toronto.

“I have the greatest sense of personal pride that this is our Nobel,” Lefkowitz said. “I did all this work here at Duke. Every bit of it.”

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