Duke doctor receives top science award

STAFF WRITEROctober 10, 2012 

  • OTHER N.C. WINNERS Two other North Carolina researchers have been awarded the National Medal of Science since 1962: - Gertrude B. Elion, a scientist at Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) in Research Triangle Park, won the award in 1991. She was also the 1988 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Elion died in 1999. - Ernst Weber, an Austrian-born engineer, won the award in 1987. Weber was known for overseeing growth at what's now Polytechnic Institute of New York University, but moved to North Carolina in the 1970s. He was living in Columbus, N.C., at the time of his death in 1996, according to an obituary in The New York Times. For more information on The National Medal of Science

Editor's note: This story was first published Aug. 26, 2008

DURHAM - A doctor at Duke University Medical Center will receive the nation's highest award for science.

Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz was named a recipient of the National Medal of Science for his contributions to biology. President Bush announced the award Monday.

Lefkowitz was honored for research into understanding the largest, most important and most therapeutically accessible receptor system that controls the body's response to drugs and hormones.

Reached at his Durham home on Monday evening, Lefkowitz said he had been "awe-struck" when he looked over the list of past winners and saw many Nobel laureates among them.

"It's certainly very exciting," said Lefkowitz, 65. He said he found out he was a winner several days ago, but hadn't known beforehand that he had been nominated.

Bush will present Lefkowitz with the medal Sept. 29 at a ceremony at the White House.

Lefkowitz said his research focuses on receptors, the molecules in cells that act as "locks" and respond to hormone and drug "keys." He said his current research could have applications for developing a whole new class of drugs. "These receptors basically regulate virtually all physiological processes in our bodies," he said.

As an example of the receptors' role, Lefkowitz cited adrenaline reaching the receptors in heart cells and making the heart beat stronger and faster. A beta-blocker drug can be used to block those receptors and, therefore, the response to adrenaline.

"I spent my career figuring out what the structure of these receptors are," he said.

Born and raised in the Northeast, Lefkowitz studied as an undergraduate and medical student at Columbia University in New York, then spent two years as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health.

He hadn't given any thought to a research career when he entered medical school. "I went to be a full-time practitioner," he said. "That was my idea. But you never know -- that's the fun of it."

He joined the Duke faculty in 1973 and does some teaching in addition to his research.

In addition to his post as James B. Duke Professor of Medicine and Biochemistry, Lefkowitz is one of the longest-serving investigators for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md.

When not working, Lefkowitz said, he spends much of his time exercising in a well-equipped basement gym. There's a family history of heart disease, he said, so he tries to work out seven days a week and is a vegetarian. He and his wife, Lynn, have five grown children and four grandchildren.

In 2006, he recalled, he went to his 40th medical school reunion. "I was shocked to find out that about two-thirds of my medical school class had retired," he said.

He has no such plans of his own.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

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