Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Nobel Biochemistry - Something I Can Be Happy About

Congratulations to both Dr. Lefkowitz (who works just down the street from me!) and Dr. Kobilka for winning this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work in G-protein-coupled-receptors. Isolating that the receptors themselves were discreet components in cells was important work that Lefkowitz had to undertake. On top of this, Kobilka's group ended up taking crystallographic data of the receptor as it mediates signal. This work has been outstanding both in terms of biochemical analysis and for the insight that it gives into G-protein-coupled-receptor mechanics. Really, the research sheds light on all sorts of receptor interactions. Pretty much everyone is agreeing that this work deserves a Nobel Prize, but, not unsurprisingly, there has been a loud outcry from many chemists that this biology research shouldn't be taking a prize away from hard-line chemists. Both scientists are M.D.s and the research itself is biochemical in nature, so it's not hard to see why the electron-pushers and p-chemists, mass spectrometrists and polymer synthesizers could feel pushed aside.

Avid readers of the chemistry blogosphere should be familiar with Derek Lowe and Ash Jogalekar who blog, respectively, at In the Pipeline and The Curious Wavefunction. Linked above are their positive responses explaining why they're happy with crystollographers in biochemistry receiving this year's Nobel. It happens that I agree with their opinions more than those chemists who are more "grumpy" about this year's prize. Protein interactions are definitely chemical interactions. Not only is this the case, but the impact for the discovery has been felt largely in the chemistry community. Chemists, along with the pharmacologists and doctors, are putting the work in to target these G-protein-coupled-receptors. I think that it's important to keep in our sights that the community who feels the impact of a discovery is more important than the field of those making the discovery.

In our line of work, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish exactly which scientist is doing what. It's always clear who the synthesis guys are, but in the analytical labs (just as an example) you can't just assume that everyone is a chemist. Around the mass spectrometers I'm secure of my place as a chemist, but many of us have formal training in biology or even pharmacology. When you get right down to it, chromatography can be thought of as method engineering and the same can be said for mass spectrometry. When you really start slicing and dicing labels, lots of scientists might or might not be chemists based on how much of a purist the guy with the label tape is.

Now that I'm done saying how much I'm okay with the ambiguity that sometimes flows into the ranks of "chemists" worldwide, I can still see why many are still upset about the chemistry prizes going to biologists. More specifically, this research is chemistry with relevance in medicine and physiology. There is a separate prize for that. While I'm fine with the recipient choices, I do wonder what exactly distinguishes medical research and medicinal chemistry research.

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