Pair wins Nobel Prize in Medicine for unraveling mystery of sensing temperature and touch

Nobel Committee member Patrik Ernfors explains the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine during a press conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on October 4, 2021.
Image Credit: REUTERS

STOCKHOLM: US scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday for their findings on temperature and touch receptors.

The duo’s research, conducted independently of each other in the late 1990s and 2000s, is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of diseases and conditions, including chronic pain.


Julius told Scientific American in 2019 that he got the idea to study chili peppers after a visit to the grocery store.
Image credit: AFP

Julius, who won the 2019 $ 3 million breakthrough prize in life sciences, said he was stunned to receive the call from the Nobel committee on Monday morning.

The choice of Julius, 65, and Lebanon-born Patapoutian, underscored how little scientists knew about how our bodies perceive the outside world before their discoveries – and how much remains to be learned, has declared Oscar Marin, director of the MRC. King’s College London Center for Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

“While we understood the physiology of the senses, what we didn’t understand was how we felt the differences in temperature or pressure,” Marin said. “Knowing how our body perceives these changes is fundamental because once we know these molecules, they can be targeted. It’s like finding a lock and now we know the precise keys that will be needed to unlock it.

Marin said the findings opened up “ a whole area of ​​pharmacology ” and that researchers were already working to develop drugs to target the receptors they identified.

Marin predicted that new pain treatments would likely come first, but knowing how the body senses changes in pressure could eventually lead to heart disease medications, if scientists can find a way to ease the pressure on it. blood vessels and other organs.

“You never really expect that to happen … I thought it was a joke,” he told Swedish radio.

Our ability to feel heat, cold and touch is essential to survival, the Nobel committee explained, and underpins our interaction with the world around us.

“The groundbreaking discoveries … by this year’s Nobel laureates have enabled us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can trigger the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world,” said the Nobel jury.

“In our daily life, we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be felt? This question has been answered by this year’s Nobel Prize winners.

Chilli inspiration

Julius, 65, was recognized for his research into the use of capsaicin – a compound in chili peppers that induces a burning sensation – to identify nerve sensors in the skin that respond to heat.

The human body generates heat in response to inflammation, so we can protect the affected area and allow it to heal.

Julius told Scientific American in 2019 that he got the idea to study chili peppers after a visit to the grocery store.

“I was looking at these shelves and racks with mostly chili peppers and extracts (hot sauce) and I was like, ‘This is such a big problem and so much fun to look at.’ I really have to get serious about this, ”he said.


Patapoutian’s pioneering discovery was to identify the class of nerve sensors that respond to touch.
Image Credit: Reuters

Julius, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, and Patapoutian, 12 years younger, a professor at Scripps Research in California, will share the Nobel Prize check for 10 million Swedish kronor ($ 1.1 million, one million euros).

The pair were not among the favorites mentioned in speculation before the announcement.

The pioneers of messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which paved the way for mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, and immune system researchers have been widely cited as favorites.

While the 2020 award was presented during the pandemic, this is the first time that the entire selection process has taken place under the shadow of COVID-19.

Last year, the prize was awarded to three virologists for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus.

The favorites of the Peace Prize

The Nobel season continues on Tuesday with the Physics Prize and Wednesday with Chemistry, followed by the highly anticipated gongs for Literature Thursday and Peace Friday before the Economics Prize ends on Monday, October 11.

Speculation about potential Peace Prize winners ranges from Belarusian opposition to climate activists like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg.

Meanwhile, literary circles are buzzing with speculation that the Swedish academy may choose to rectify an imbalance with the price of literature that has seen Europe and North America dominate since 2012.

In total, these two regions have 95 of the 117 laureates in literature.

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