Little Falls bakery helps deliver a sweet reward: Nobel Prize

Time at parents' business led Brian Kobilka to studies in Duluth and the chemistry prize.

Brian Kobilka's work at the family bakery in Little Falls grew into a lifelong fascination with science -- and now a Nobel Prize.

Kobilka, a Little Falls High School and University of Minnesota Duluth graduate, won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday along with fellow American Robert Lefkowitz for their studies showing how cells in the body respond to flavors, hormones and other signals. Their work is key to developing better medicines.

In a telephone interview from his Bay Area home, crammed before dawn with news media members, Kobilka said his parents' example in the bakery prepared him to run a research lab.

"Running a lab involves getting a lot of people to work together for a common goal," Kobilka said. "I learned a lot from my father in that sense, even if it was a different operation."

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Lefkowitz and Kobilka made groundbreaking discoveries on an important family of proteins called G-protein-coupled receptors. About half of all medications act on these receptors, including beta blockers and antihistamines.

The two prize winners "have been at the forefront of this entire scientific journey," the Nobel committee said.

Kobilka, 57, is a professor at Stanford University's School of Medicine in California. Lefkowitz, 69, is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor at the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina. Kobilka worked for Lefkowitz before moving to Stanford, and most of their joint work was done in the 1980s.

Just last year Kobilka and his Stanford team captured an image of a receptor at the moment it transferred a signal from a hormone to the interior of the cell. The academy called that "a molecular masterpiece."

Surprised by spotlight

During a news conference at Stanford, Kobilka admitted being uncomfortable with the worldwide attention. Upon hearing the news, he said, "I wasn't exactly sure if it was real. I was extremely happy." He paused, then added, "I am sorry I am not more eloquent."

The call from the Nobel committee came about 2:30 a.m. PDT, Kobilka said. The committee members "passed the phone around and congratulated me," Kobilka told the Associated Press. "I guess they do that so you actually believe them. When one person calls you, it can be a joke, but when five people with convincing Swedish accents call you, then it isn't a joke."

He said he would put his half of the $1.2 million award toward retirement or "pass it on" to his two adult children.

Kobilka was born in May 1955 into a family of bakers, including a grandfather. His parents, Betty and Franklyn Kobilka, ran the Sanitary Bakery on Broadway in downtown Little Falls, and Brian and his sister, Pamela, helped out.

The Kobilkas sold the bakery in 1985, and Franklyn died in 2004.

Pete and Joy Kamrowski bought the bakery, now called Pete and Joy's, from the Kobilkas and still run it at the same location.

Brian Kobilka "would come in with his children and tour the bakery every time he would come back" to Little Falls, Joy Kamrowski said Tuesday afternoon. "He wanted so very much to share that with his children, even though it had changed a lot. He has stories to tell them ... and his children enjoyed that."

'He never got in trouble'

Kobilka's sister, Pamela Elconin, of Minnetonka, said her younger brother was "always interested in science. He said his favorite gift [as a child] was a microscope."

Words to describe her brother include "modest," "low-key" and "soft-spoken."

"He never got in trouble and always tried to do the right thing," she said.

Little Falls High School had a group of math and science teachers in the early 1970s who encouraged him to pursue a career in science.

At UMD, he met biology Prof. Conrad Firling, who was "very important in teaching me how to think about science, how to work and do things properly," Kobilka said.

Away from academia and research, Kobilka is described as a husband, father and "fantastic bike rider" who has covered many miles around the United States and in Europe.

Kobilka met his future wife, Tong Sun Thian, in biology class at UMD, according to a profile published last summer in the science journal Nature.

Kobilka got his first taste of research when he and Tong Sun worked in a developmental biology lab at UMD, the profile said, and built a tissue-culture hood for the lab using scrap heavy plastic from his father's bakery.

"Brian was in the chemistry honors program [and] was such a good student we knew we needed to do something special to help him with his honors research project," said UMD Prof. Robert Carlson, who had Kobilka in organic chemistry.

Carlson said that he and Firling "set up a collaboration so Brian could do chemistry and molecular biology research. It was the first time we set up that kind of interdisciplinary cooperation."

For years, Firling has said that Kobilka deserves a Nobel Prize. "I talked about Brian in class to get students excited about resarch."

This is the second consecutive year that someone with ties to Minnesota has won a Nobel. In 2011, Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims won the Nobel in economics for the work they did while in the University of Minnesota's Economics Department in the 1970s and 1980s. They were part of a group of known as "the Four Horsemen." Another "horseman" Edward Prescott won the Nobel in economics in 2004.

Star Tribune researcher John Wareham and The Associated Press contributed to this report. pwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482 alejandra.matos@startribune.com • 612-673-4028

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