Little Falls native wins Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Dr. Brian Kobilka brings pride to his hometown, nation and the field of scientific research

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor

Dr. Brian Kobilka in his Palo Alto home in California early Wednesday as reporters were arriving to do interviews. Kobilka had just learned at 2:30 a.m. that he and his colleague Robert Lefkowitz, MD, had won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Dr. Brian Kobilka’s Nobel Prize put him right up there with Charles A. Lindbergh in Little Falls’ history.

At least his childhood friends from Little Falls think so.

Kobilka is a medical doctor and professor and chair of molecular and cellular physiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California. He and his colleague, Robert Lefkowitz, 69, a professor at Duke University in North Carolina, learned Wednesday, they had won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on G-protein-coupled receptors.

It wasn’t long before folks from Little Falls, who had known Kobilka growing up, were eager to share their excitement.

Childhood friends Dr. Tom Stoy, a family physician at the Family Medical Center, and John Nagel, a special education teacher in Little Falls, have kept in touch with Kobilka over the years.

“I think he’s right up there with Charles Lindbergh,” said Stoy. “How many people from the state of Minnesota have gotten a Nobel Prize?”

Dr. Brian Kobilka, left, and his wife, Dr. Tong Sun, visited with reporters in their Palo Alto home in California after learning that Kobilka and his colleague, Robert Lefkowitz, MD, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The couple has been together since 1973, when they met in college at the University of Minnesota – Duluth. They married in 1978 and work together in the lab. Kobilka said his wife has been part of the process earning this success.

It’s a pretty rare feat, he said. “The fact that I’ve known this guy, and known him all my life — I had to pinch myself,” Stoy said.

Stoy, Nagel and Kobilka attended St. Mary’s Parochial School until the eighth grade together. “Brian was a very good kid —  he and I had the privilege of raising the flag together every day at St. Mary’s in the eighth grade,” said Stoy.

“We used to play tennis, his family had a lake cabin and we went water skiing,” said Stoy. “He was as straight an arrow as you can imagine.”

After graduating from the eighth grade, Stoy would attend high school at St. John’s  Prep and Nagel and Kobilka headed off to the Little Falls Community High School.

The three graduated in 1973. Kobilka and Nagel were in the first class to graduate from the then-brand new  LFCHS building. Stoy graduated from St. John’s.

“We graduated from different schools together,” joked Stoy.

Both men described their friend as an all-American but modest kid, with great study habits. “He was very, very diligent,” said Stoy.

Nagel was Kobilka’s roommate when they were freshmen at the University of Minnesota – Duluth (UMD).

Brian Kobilka’s senior high school photo from the Little Falls Community High School Yearbook of 1973. His friends described him as a modest, all-American kid.

Unlike other college freshmen, including Nagel, Kobilka remained diligent in his studies. It was his example that Nagel credits with his own success.

“Brian’s studies rubbed off on me, and I logged countless hours in the media center,” said Nagel. “I went from a 2.5 grade point average (GPA) in high school to 3.5 college student. I credit my success to following his example.”

“Truthfully, I’m not surprised at his success,” said Nagel. “He just was always so dedicated and, of course, over time now, I’ve heard of his research and things that were pretty significant. Granted, I didn’t sit there and say, ‘He’s gonna win a Nobel Prize someday,’ but it doesn’t surprise me.”

But Kobilka wasn’t one-dimensional, said Nagel. “He was out for cross country and  track, he had a lot of different interests.”

The last time Nagel saw Kobilka was nine years ago at their 30th class reunion. He’s looking forward to possibly seeing him at the 40th reunion next year.

Stoy, who saw his friend as recently as eight months ago, said sometimes he could beat Kobilka in tennis.

“But I don’t think I can beat a Nobel Prize. There’s no way I can one-up this. I’m kind of upset about that,” Stoy joked.

Seriously, “I’m incredibly happy for him,” he said.

Stoy recalled Kobilka and another Little Falls friend, Phil Hansen, had gotten into bicycling.

As a part of the “Wandering Wheels,” Stoy said Kobilka rode from San Diego, Calif. to Jacksonville, Fla.

“He said he dipped his wheels in both oceans, but that was the kind of different adventure Brian’s been involved in,” he said.

Kobilka met his wife, Tong Sun, while he was a freshman at UMD in 1973. She is also a doctor, an internist. She works at the clinic one day a week and the rest of the time works in the lab with him.

She, too, shares in this success, said Kobilka.

“She was absolutely a part of the process as well,” he said.

The couple has two grown children.

Kobilka’s parents, Frank and Betty, owned and operated the Sanitary Bakery in Little Falls, with a branch in Pierz. He has one sister, Pam Elconin who lives in the Metro area. Frank passed away eight years ago, but Betty lives with her daughter and the two are excited about his Nobel Prize.

Kobilka said if his father were still alive, “He would have been thrilled.”

He described his father as a very good person.

“I would say my father had a very big effect on me,” he said. “I think he was very good at working with people, getting the best out of people and very supportive. I think that had a big impact on how I do things.”

Pictured during a press conference Wednesday are (from left): Stanford University President John Hennessy, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Brian Kobilka,and Dr. Philip Pizzo, dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Kobilka said Thursday he hadn’t spoken to anyone in Little Falls yet, but had received a lot of e-mails and voice messages.

While he couldn’t pinpoint them, he said, “I’m sure there a lot of things about growing up in a small town like Little Falls that influenced the kind of person I am. I’m very proud to have come from Little Falls.”

His high school teachers were “very good teachers,” he said.

“They liked what they did, and they tried to get us to do the best that we could,” he said. “You sometimes have teachers that are going through the motions and who don’t seem to be interested in what they are doing. I had  a really good collection of teachers in math, physics, chemistry and biology. I’m sure it influenced me and helped direct me toward the sciences when I went to college.”

And focus on the sciences he did. He graduated from UMD in 1977 with degrees in biology and chemistry, graduated in 1981 from Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn., and worked at Duke University with Lefkowitz before transferring to Stanford.

Kobilka, 57, found out at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, that he had become one of the just 160 people who have been awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry since 1901.

“They make the decision in Sweden and they call you up,” he said.

The Academy accepts nominations from different scientists.

“Every once in a while, if you’ve been in science for a while you’ll get a request to nominate someone,” said Kobilka. “I guess it depends upon how many nominations someone gets and the impact of their work.”

Nobel Prizes originated in 1895, when Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, giving the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes. One part, as dictated by Nobel, was to be dedicated to “the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement.”

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and the $1.2 million that comes with it, said Kobilka and Lefkowitz have made groundbreaking discoveries, mainly in the 1980s.

“Your body is a fine-tuned system of interactions between billions of cells. Each cell has tiny receptors that enable it to sense its environment, so it can adapt to new situations,” the Academy reported. “Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka are awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for groundbreaking discoveries that reveal the inner workings of an important family of such receptors: G-protein–coupled receptors.”

Someday, this research will aid in drug development.

“I think that the impact will probably come in years down the line,” said Kobilka. “What we’ve done is provide extra tools for pharmaceutical companies to develop safer and more effective  drugs, and even if they were able to use those tools right now, it takes five to seven years to develop drugs.”

Whether his friend, Dr. Stoy, will someday prescribe a safer more effective drug developed because of those tools, he doesn’t know.

“Hopefully, someday, he’ll still be practicing and might use a drug developed using the tools we’ve developed for the industry,” said Kobilka.