August 26, 2008
Robert J. Lefkowitz to Receive National Medal of Science
President George W. Bush named Robert J. Lefkowitz, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator at Duke University Medical Center, a recipient of the National Medal of Science for contributions to the biological sciences.
Lefkowitz, who has been an HHMI investigator since 1976, is being honored for a lifetime of research on protein receptors that translate hormonal signals into cellular responses in the heart and other organs throughout the body.
President Bush will present Lefkowitz with the medal, which is the nation's highest honor for science, at a ceremony on September 29 at the White House.
The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 as a Presidential Award to be given to individuals “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences.” This recognition now also includes the social and behavioral sciences. A committee of 12 scientists and engineers is appointed by the President to evaluate nominees for the award.
Lefkowitz's work with G protein-coupled receptors, the largest and most pervasive family of cell receptors, began in 1982 with the identification of the gene for the ß-adrenergic receptor, which helps regulate the body's fight-or-flight response by reacting to epinephrine. Shortly thereafter, he discovered seven additional adrenergic receptors. These receptors—and all G-protein receptors—share a basic structure, in which the molecule weaves its way back and forth seven times across a cell's membrane. When the portion of the molecule that lies outside the cell connects with the receptor's favored signaling molecule, the internal portions of the molecule can trigger the appropriate cellular response.
About 1,000 G protein-coupled receptors are now known to contribute to physiological processes including pain tolerance, glucose metabolism, and the regulation of heart rate and blood pressure. Understanding the similarities that shape how these receptors function has helped pharmaceutical researchers target these molecules in the body. Lefkowitz has also discovered two new families of proteins that desensitize G protein-coupled receptors, a finding that has helped scientists understand how receptors become tolerant of certain drugs.
In addition to three decades of discoveries in the laboratory, Lefkowitz is widely recognized for his dedication to mentoring and his tireless devotion to his students. Over the years, he has trained more than 200 graduate students and postdocs in his laboratory.
In 2007, Lefkowitz received the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research. He has received more than 50 international and national awards, earned several honorary doctorate degrees, and has held leadership posts in many clinical and professional organizations.