Doctor of Science

A world-renowned scientist at Stanford University School of Medicine, Brian K. Kobilka, MD, is known for his discoveries related to G-protein-coupled receptors, key proteins that govern many aspects of hormonal communication between cells in the body.

Along with Robert Lefkowitz, MD, of Duke University, Dr. Kobilka, the Hélène Irwin Fagan Chair in Cardiology and a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford, was honored for these discoveries with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012.

Originally from Little Falls, Minnesota, Dr. Kobilka earned a bachelor of science degree in biology and chemistry, summa cum laude, from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in 1977. He earned his medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine in 1981 and completed his residency in internal medicine at what was then Barnes Hospital and at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Dr. Kobilka said he became interested in intensive care medicine during his clinical training. He noted that patients admitted to the intensive care units often needed medications to regulate blood pressure and heart rate—medications that act on hormone-sensing receptors. 

This interest led him to Duke University, where Dr. Kobilka joined Dr. Lefkowitz’s lab in 1984 as a postdoctoral fellow. There, he conducted the early part of the work that would lead to recognition by the Nobel committee. Dr. Kobilka and his colleagues cloned the gene responsible for coding the receptor for the hormone adrenaline. Only one other similar receptor was described at that time—the receptor responsible for light sensing, called rhodopsin. 

The research laid the groundwork for the identification of an entire family of receptors that function in similar ways. Called G-protein-coupled receptors, these proteins play important roles in governing how the body responds to hormone signaling and neurotransmitters. These proteins weave through the outer membranes of cells with one side protruding outside the cell to sense hormones and the other emerging inside the cell to activate signaling cascades when triggered by the external hormone or other molecular signal. About 800 G-protein-coupled receptors have been identified, and they control functions as diverse as the contraction of smooth muscle in the heart and lungs, the sensing of light in the retina, the regulation of blood pressure and heart rate, and the management of pain. 

The understanding of G-protein-coupled receptors has become central to novel drug development—about half of all medications in use today act through this type of receptor. In addition to his academic research, Dr. Kobilka is also an entrepreneur.

Together with his wife, Tong Sun Kobilka, MD, who was a staff researcher in his lab, Dr. Kobilka co-founded a biotechnology company called ConfometRx, which is focused on harnessing the function of G-protein-coupled receptors in the development of new therapeutics. The company is developing small molecule therapeutics across a variety of diseases including metabolic disorders, respiratory diseases, psychiatric disorders, Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer. 

More on Brian Kobilka

• Biography from the Nobel Prize website

• Watch highlights of his Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative

• In the news

After his postdoctoral fellowship, Dr. Kobilka joined the Stanford faculty in 1989. His lab has focused on understanding the structure and function of G-protein-coupled receptors at the molecular level using biochemical, biophysical and structural techniques. 

In particular, Dr. Kobilka’s lab is known for its work defining and imaging high-resolution 3D crystal structures of this type of receptor using X-ray crystallography. He also has shown the structure of these receptors when they are bound to the hormone on the outside of the cell and when they are activating the G protein inside the cell. His detailed structural analyses could lead to more precise medications that only activate the specific desired receptor, reducing unwanted side effects. 

Dr. Kobilka is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1994, his work was recognized with the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics John J. Abel Award in Pharmacology. He also has received the 2004 Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the 2017 Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement. 

Dr. Kobilka and his wife live in Palo Alto, California. They have two adult children, Jason and Megan.