David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize Physiology or medicine on Monday “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.”
Their research work puts light on how to decrease the chronic and acute pain linked with the range of diseases, trauma and treatments. “Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us,” said the Nobel committee.
“In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived?” This question, the committee said, has now been solved.
Why did they win?
Breakthrough discoveries have been made by the duo that began intense research activities that led to an increase in our understanding of how our nervous system senses heat, cold and mechanical stimuli. The critical missing links were identified by the laureates to understand the complex interplay between our senses and the environment.
Julius specifically used capsaicin, a strong compound from chili peppers that tempts a burning sensation, to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat. Patapoutian used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a novel class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs.
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Why is the work important?
The Nobel committee said the two scientists helped answer one of the most profound questions about the human condition: How do we sense our environment?
“The mechanisms underlying our senses have triggered our curiosity for thousands of years, for example, how light is detected by the eyes, how sound waves affect our inner ears, and how different chemical compounds interact with receptors in our nose and mouth generating smell and taste,” the committee wrote.
For the first time the work by Julius and Patapoutian has allowed us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can initiate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world around us.
The committee said, their work has already urged intensive research into the development of treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain.
Who are the winners?
Julius is a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. In the 1990s, his research into the chemical compound capsaicin revolutionised the way scientists understand the burning sensation created by chili peppers. With a team of co-workers, he created a library containing millions of DNA fragments that are expressed in sensory neurons in response to pain, heat and touch.
Patapoutian, who was born in 1967 to Armenian parents in Lebanon and moved to Los Angeles in his youth, is a molecular biologist and neuroscientist at Scripps Research in California, which “focuses on identifying and characterising ion channels and other sensors that translate mechanical stimuli to chemical signals”.
In 2020, Julius and Patapoutian got the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, which is presided over by the Norwegian government, for their groundbreaking discovery of proteins that help bodies sense pressure.