Adrenergic receptors. Models for regulation of signal transduction processes.

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Adrenergic receptors are prototypic models for the study of the relations between structure and function of G protein-coupled receptors. Each receptor is encoded by a distinct gene. These receptors are integral membrane proteins with several striking structural features. They consist of a single subunit containing seven stretches of 20-28 hydrophobic amino acids that represent potential membrane-spanning alpha-helixes. Many of these receptors share considerable amino acid sequence homology, particularly in the transmembrane domains. All of these macromolecules share other similarities that include one or more potential sites of extracellular N-linked glycosylation near the amino terminus and several potential sites of regulatory phosphorylation that are located intracellularly. By using a variety of techniques, it has been demonstrated that various regions of the receptor molecules are critical for different receptor functions. The seven transmembrane regions of the receptors appear to form a ligand-binding pocket. Cysteine residues in the extracellular domains may stabilize the ligand-binding pocket by participating in disulfide bonds. The cytoplasmic domains contain regions capable of interacting with G proteins and various kinases and are therefore important in such processes as signal transduction, receptor-G protein coupling, receptor sequestration, and down-regulation. Finally, regions of these macromolecules may undergo posttranslational modifications important in the regulation of receptor function. Our understanding of these complex relations is constantly evolving and much work remains to be done. Greater understanding of the basic mechanisms involved in G protein-coupled, receptor-mediated signal transduction may provide leads into the nature of certain pathophysiological states.







Robert J. Lefkowitz

The Chancellor's Distinguished Professor of Medicine

Dr. Lefkowitz’s memoir, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm, recounts his early career as a cardiologist and his transition to biochemistry, which led to his Nobel Prize win.

Robert J. Lefkowitz, M.D. is Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at the Duke University Medical Center. He has been an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute since 1976. Dr. Lefkowitz began his research career in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when there was not a clear consensus that specific receptors for drugs and hormones even existed. His group spent 15 difficult years developing techniques for labeling the receptors with radioactive drugs and then purifying the four different receptors that were known and thought to exist for adrenaline, so called adrenergic receptors. In 1986 Dr. Lefkowitz transformed the understanding of what had by then become known as G protein coupled receptors because of the way the receptor signal for the inside of a cell through G proteins, when he and his colleagues cloned the gene for the beta2-adrenergic receptor. They immediately recognized the similarity to a molecule called rhodopsin which is essentially a light receptor in the retina. This unexpected finding established the beta receptor and rhodopsin as the first member of a new family of proteins. Because each has a peptide structure, which weaves across the cell membrane seven times, these receptors are referred to as seven transmembrane receptors. This super family is now known to be the largest, most diverse and most therapeutically accessible of all the different kinds of cellular receptors. There are almost a thousand members of this receptor family and they regulate virtually all known physiological processes in humans. They include the receptors not only to numerous hormones and neurotransmitters but for the receptors which mediate the senses of sweet and bitter taste and smell amongst many others. Dr. Lefkowitz also discovered the mechanism by which receptor signaling is turned off, a process known as desensitization. Dr. Lefkowitz work was performed at the most fundamental and basic end of the research spectrum and has had remarkable consequences for clinical medicine. Today, more than half of all prescription drug sales are of drugs that target either directly or indirectly the receptors discovered by Dr. Lefkowitz and his trainees. These include amongst many others beta blockers, angiotensin receptor blockers or ARBs and antihistamines. Over the past decade he has discovered novel mechanisms by which the receptors function which may lead to the development of an entirely new class of drugs called “biased agonists”. Several such compounds are already in advanced stages of clinical testing. Dr. Lefkowitz has received numerous honors and awards, including the National Medal of Science, the Shaw Prize, the Albany Prize, and the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was elected to the USA National Academy of Sciences in 1988, the Institute of Medicine in 1994, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1988.

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