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Lefkowitz Nobel: “There’s a lot of love here”

How many of you could say this about your laboratory group?

In the hall outside the champagne reception for Bob Lefkowitz’s lab on Wednesday at Duke University Medical Center, I had a chance to catch up with Marti Delahunty, PhD. Delahunty is a research scientist in a connecting building but worked in the Lefkowitz group from 1998 until 2006.

This brief chat brings to mind Carmen Drahl’s post about one’s laboratory being your second family.

 

 
PIs, trainees, technicians, and administrators: Tell me if you’d be able to say the same about the environment of your laboratory.

 

HHMI and Duke Celebrate the Lefkowitz Chemistry Nobel

As discussed in my previous post, I took a personal day off from work yesterday to bask in the excitement of a university community celebrating a Nobel prize for one of its most beloved researchers, Dr. Robert “Bob” Lefkowitz, MD. He joined Duke in 1973 when, he says, “it was not the powerhouse it is today.”

Lefkowitz will share the prize with his former trainee, Brian Kobilka, MD, now at Stanford University.

I had the honor of joining his laboratory’s champagne celebration in the morning and the Duke University press conference in the early afternoon. (The full 47-minute press conference streamed live and is archived here at Duke.).

I live barely three miles from Duke and had no idea when or if I’d ever have the chance to be so close to such an event. The Lefkowitz prize is particularly meaningful to me as he is a biochemist physician-scientist who also considers himself a pharmacologist. So, I write this not so much as a journalist but rather — as Duke Research Communications Director Karl Leif Bates put it — a fan boy.

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Lefkowitz and Kobilka win 2012 Chemistry Nobel for GPCRs

Defending the Chemistry Nobel for “biology” – again.

I’m near-certain that this is the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry given to two MDs. (10:31 am EDT: I was wrong, as per commenter Jonny below. Peter Agre, MD, and Roderick MacKinnon, MD, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2003 for their work on aquaporins and other ion channels.)

Robert Lefkowitz, MD, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University Medical Center, and Brian Kobilka, MD, of Stanford University School of Medicine, will share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012. The award recognizes a lifetime of work, certainly for Lefkowitz, in elucidating the action of the central chemical signal transducers of the human body.

This is a chemistry prize, albeit a biological chemistry prize.

The prize is being given for discovering how the body’s most important chemicals communicate their own chemical signals from outside the cell to inside. Without G-protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs, our hearts would not beat, our lungs would not expand and contract, and our brains would be unable to regulate much of everything that runs in our bodies.

Moreover, the ubiquity of GPCRs have over history breathed tremendous life and stimulated innovation in chemistry to synthesize tools to modulate these receptors and thereby relieve human suffering. Chemists should revel in this prize – without G-protein coupled receptors, many chemists would not have been employed for the last few decades.

But I do agree that a case could be made for this prize to be given in Physiology or Medicine, particularly since GPCRs are central to physiology, “from plants to man.”

More later.

Feel free to vent your spleen in the comments below.

But do note that Derek Lowe, medicinal chemist and grand master of the chemblogosphere, has already decreed, “[M]y fellow chemists, cheer the hell up already.”

Disclosure: I hold an Adjunct Associate Professor appointment in the Duke University School of Medicine, Department of Medicine.

 

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Gurdon and Yamanaka share Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012

British scientist John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka (MD, PhD!), a Japanese scientist now at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this morning,  ”for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.”

John B. Gurdon. Credit: nobelprize.org, Creative Commons Attri 2.0 license.

Briefly, Gurdon and colleagues showed that the genetic information from a mature, differentiated cell still had the ability to program an undifferentiated embryonic cell to develop into an adult organism. That is, an embryonic cell contains the chemical signals to use adult DNA to drive development of a new organism.

The work was done with the frog, Xenopus laevis, and the technique came to be known as “nuclear transfer.” In colloquial terms, this is “cloning.” Current press reports are citing Gurdon’s work as occurring in 1962 but studies appear to have been published in Nature as early as 1958.

Christen Brownlee composed a superb summary of nuclear transfer for the Classics section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Gurdon’s work stemmed from 1952 experiments of Robert Briggs and Thomas J. King with another frog, Rana pipens. Briggs died in 1983 and King in 2000 and could not be recognized with the Nobel. This fact relieved the Nobel committee, in my opinion, from having to decide which scientist would have been awarded the potential third slot for the prize. (Addendum 7:18 am EDT): I suspect that some argument will arise in support of UW-Madison’s James A. Thomson for the third slot as the Science paper from his group came out concomitantly with Yamanaka’s Cell paper. 8:21 am: The Guardian’s Alok Jha just reminded me that I overlooked Takahashi and Yamanaka’s earlier Cell paper from 2006. However, C&EN’s Carmen Drahl is now reporting this 2001 TIME magazine cover with Thomson.)

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Smiles: 2C-I or not 2C-I?

Designer drugs in the news

This is tiring enough for a science writer. I cannot imagine being in law enforcement.

The pace at which psychoactive designer drugs are appearing on the street is about as challenging for me as keeping up with dietary supplement companies that adulterate their products with actual prescription drugs (an area I’ve been covering since 2007 but a practice that goes back decades.)

This week’s designer drug hullabaloo comes to us courtesy of last week’s frightful murder-suicide by Sons of Anarchy actor, the late Johnny Lewis. ABC News is reporting today that Lewis was reportedly taking “Smiles,” a street name for 2C-I, the phenethylamine hallucinogen first synthesized by Alexander Shulgin.

2C-I is more properly known as 2,5-dimethoxy-4-iodophenethylamine. This structural analog of mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenylethylamine) was among a litany of designer drugs that was criminalized in the US back in July with the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 (Cheryl Hogue had a nice discussion of the Act, including some quotes from yours truly, in the 27 August 2012 issue of C&EN.).
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L’Embarras Des Richesses: ScienceOnline2013 and ScienceWriters2012

In this quiet moment on a rainy Saturday evening in North Carolina Piedmont, I lie here in awe of the breadth of creative talent and boundless enthusiasm that this place attracts.

Tonight at 5:00 pm Eastern time, a couple hundred folks or so learned that they had not scored a slot in the lottery for the remaining spaces at ScienceOnline2013. I won’t be there this year either but I can certainly understand the disappointment. This simple idea of Bora Zivkovic along with Let’s-Get-Together-and-See-Where-This-Goes Guy, Anton Zuiker, has grown from a small gathering of likeminded online science enthusiasts to become the South-By-Southwest of science meetings, now under the exceptional leadership of Karyn Traphagen.

I encourage everyone to stay on or sign up for the waitlist. Lots of plans change between now and late January so registration slots will most certainly open up.

Y’all come! Click for details.

But in the meantime, you might consider another possibility that just happens to be available this year very near to the same GPS coordinates: ScienceWriters2012, the annual conference of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the National Association of Science Writers.

Scheduled for October 26-30, 2012, ScienceWriters2012 will be headquartered at the very same hotel with a program crafted by a broad group of science communicators that include a subset of ScienceOnline folks. (For the record, we’re called Science Communicators of North Carolina, or SCONC.).

Here, look at the schedule yourself.

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Behind the Wood Shed with the ACS

You’ve been very bad boys. Credit: Stephen Horncastle/Wikimedia Commons

Forgive me for sporting my crankypants today but I had originally intended to be in Islamorada right now, snorkeling and kayaking. Between the PharmKid hurting her wrist in nature camp (4 weeks in a cast) and my 4 weeks in an ankle brace, the PharmFamily took advantage of the wise purchase of trip insurance and stayed home to nurse our wounds.

So, I’m not in much of a happy mood with two of this week’s developments with the American Chemical Society, one of which revisits a longstanding argument over the organization’s pricing of its scholarly journals.

If you haven’t heard, yesterday’s clusterfluster was with regard to the library of the State University of New York at Potsdam (SUNY Potsdam) choosing to forego the purchase of ACS journals this year.

Here’s the post from the Attempting Elegance blog of SUNY Potsdam Director of Libraries, Jenica P. Rogers, MLIS, and an accompanying article by Jennifer Howard at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

From Jenica’s self-described tl;dr summary:

SUNY Potsdam will not be subscribing to an American Chemical Society online journal package for 2013. We will instead be using a combination of the Royal Society of Chemistry content, ACS single title subscriptions, the ACS backfile, and ScienceDirect from Elsevier** to meet our chemical information needs. We’re doing this because the ACS pricing model is unsustainable for our institution and we were unable to find common ground with the sales team from the ACS. Instead, we explored other options and exercised them. You could do the same if you find yourself in a position similar to ours as ACS standardizes their pricing, and maybe together we can make enough choices to make our voices heard in meaningful ways.

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Poisons and Policy: Arsenic and Aflatoxins

The other problem. Credit: Nakhonsawan Field Crop Research Center, Thailand.

In the past 24 hours, do you recall hearing anything about arsenic in rice? If you’re in the United States, the answer is very likely, “yes!”

A great many pixels were spilled yesterday when Consumer Reports and the US Food and Drug Administration released — almost simultaneously — analytical data on inorganic arsenic concentrations in 200 samples of commercial rice products, particularly those grown in the southern US.

You can’t do any better in understanding this story than reading, “Arsenic and Rice. Yes, again,” on Deborah Blum’s Elemental blog at Wired Science Blogs. Professor Blum has been discussing arsenic in the diet for a few years, an interest she developed while composing her superb book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York.

Deborah’s post puts in perspective the risks of inorganic (and organic) arsenic concentrations in food products such as rice relative to drinking water. Arsenic occurs in nature but exists in higher concentrations in water from areas where arsenical pesticides have been used in cotton farming or poultry deworming (the latter discussed in 2006 at NYTimes). While she closes in being critical of the FDA for lack of clear consumer guidance, let it suffice to say that no character in Blum’s book was killed by poisoning with rice from Louisiana.

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