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Heads of Laboratories

Thomas P. Sakmar, M.D.

Senior Physician
Richard M. and Isabel P. Furlaud Professor
Laboratory of Chemical Biology & Signal Transduction

Research Lab Members Publications In the News

Faculty Bio

Thomas Sakmar

Recent advances in molecular and structural studies of G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) have revolutionized drug discovery.
Dr. Sakmar uses chemical, biophysical and genetic methods to learn how signals from the outside of a cell are relayed across its membrane and into the cell’s interior. Much of his work is focused on elucidating the principles that underlie ligand recognition in GPCRs and understanding with chemical precision how receptors change conformation in the membrane bilayer when ligands bind.

The primary research focus of the Sakmar laboratory is to study the biology and chemistry of heptahelical GPCRs. The mechanism of signaling by heptahelical receptors is an area of intense scientific interest that has tremendous biological and pharmaceutical relevance: Heptahelical receptors represent the largest gene family in the human genome and the largest class of drug targets in the pharmaceutical industry. For the past five years, members of the Sakmar lab have been working to develop or adapt various innovative methods to establish a robust interdisciplinary approach to support the following long-term goals:

1) To elucidate the basic principles that underlie ligand recognition and specificity in heptahelical receptors

2) To understand the molecular mechanism of receptor activation and signaling, including the details of dynamic conformational changes required to switch a receptor from its “off” state to its “on” state

3) To understand how specific receptor proteomics and posttranslational modifications such as glycosylation, acylation, phosphorylation and tyrosine sulfation affect receptor function

4) To elucidate how receptors assemble in biological membrane bilayers and how the physical and chemical properties of the membrane affect receptor biology

5) To establish a basic foundation for drug discovery aimed at modulating the pharmacological activity of heptahelical receptors responsible for disease states

Dr. Sakmar’s work has focused primarily on family A (rhodopsin family) GPCRs as a model system for biophysical studies and chemokine receptors for studies of ligand recognition and proteomics. Chemokine receptors control cell migration and also act as coreceptors for HIV-1 cellular entry. Other receptors and other aspects of G protein-mediated signaling are also under investigation. In particular, the lab is studying downstream cytoplasmic components of G protein signaling pathways, with a particular interest in defining protein-protein interactions that modulate cross talk between signaling pathways.

In addition, the lab uses high throughput screening or high-content functional assays to characterize expressed mutant receptors and a variety of analytical methods to evaluate specific receptor structural heterogeneities. 


Dr. Sakmar received his A.B. in chemistry from the University of Chicago and his M.D. from the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine in 1982. He then completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and conducted postdoctoral research in the laboratory of Nobel Prize winner H. Gobind Khorana in the departments of chemistry and biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined Rockefeller in 1990 as assistant professor and university fellow. He was promoted to tenured professor in 1998. Dr. Sakmar has been an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a senior scholar of the Ellison Medical Foundation. He was acting president of Rockefeller University from February 2002 to September 2003. 

Dr. Sakmar is a faculty member in the David Rockefeller Graduate Program, the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program and the Tri-Institutional Ph.D. Program in Chemical Biology.

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