Great intellect, dogged determination and relentless curiosity were rewarded on October 10, 1994, when the Nobel Prize Committee announced that Alfred G. Gilman, MD, PhD, Chairman of the Department of Pharmacology, had won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of G-proteins and the role they play in cellular communication.

He shared the prize with Martin Rodbell, MD, at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina.

Gilman had maintained his intense focus over the course of three decades, earning him election to the National Academy of Sciences (1985), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1988), and the Institute of Medicine (1989) and garnering him the Lasker Award (1989), among others.

But nothing quite compares to becoming a Nobel Laureate.

“Someday you’ll be able to design a drug that works on only the molecule you want to target and on no other molecules in the human body,” Gilman predicted at the time.

G-proteins rest at the inner surface of the cell membrane. When a neurotransmitter or hormone arrives outside the cell, it doesn’t enter the cell directly; instead, it binds to a receptor on the cell’s surface. This attachment triggers a specific G-protein, one of many, to switch from “off” to “on.” The activated G-protein enlists other proteins to begin specific cellular activities. Gilman found that each G-protein has a “timer,” allowing the cellular activity to continue only as long as the G-protein remains “on.”

In addition, he found that any disruption in the normal operation of “off to on” and “on to off” might lead to disease, even cancer.

His groundbreaking research incited untold numbers of researchers around the world to further the understanding of the roles G-proteins play in human disease.

Gilman acknowledged the support of his research team, which especially included Elliott Ross, PhD, and Paul Sternweis, PhD, both of whom became independent investigators in the Department of Pharmacology. He later wrote, “It is easy to be a successful Chair in Dallas; our administration, particularly President Kern Wildenthal and Dean William Neaves, and local philanthropists ensure it.”

UT Southwestern was now home to four Nobel Laureates — more than any other medical school or research institute in the world — an unprecedented achievement even among the most elite universities.