Lauren Moye, FISM NEWS
Two American scientists were awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine yesterday for their discovery of how human bodies sense temperature and touch. Although decades old, the research of David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian revolutionized the scientific understanding of how people perceive their surroundings. Their work is an important foundation for medicine today, including potential treatments for chronic pain.
Nobel Prize Committee member Thomas Perlman said, “It was a very important and profound discovery.”
Professor Abdel El Manira, member of the Nobel Assembly, explained the importance of these finds in an interview after the announcement, “When there is a change in temperature there are sensors in our skin that are sensing these changes. … Those sensors are being activated and they are formed by those receptors that were discovered.”
Because perception is an important part of how humans interact with their world, there is a risk anytime that perception is hindered. For example, a pain medicine that also messes with the body’s ability to sense heat becomes a potential hazard for an individual struggling with chronic pain. The knowledge of which specific pain receptors sense temperature changes is an important step in developing medicine that does not impact these sensors.
Julius’ research successfully identified this heat-receptor in the 1990s. He used capsaicin, a chemical found in hot peppers and known to cause a similar reaction to real heat, to test different cells for a reaction.
This allowed him to identify a gene. He later identified the ion channel protein, now known as TRPV1, produced by this gene that allows the body to sense heat. Julius’s experiments also uncovered a cold-sensing protein among other receptors.
Patapoutian also experimented with individual cells in his quest to identify the receptor responsible for responding to pressure. His experiments involved a possible 72 genes and led to the discovery of the Piezol receptor group.
Years later, Patapoution said about his research, “One of the exciting things about it is that it’s taking us into directions and places where we didn’t know that pressure sensing was important, and that’s one of the exciting things in the future.”
He gave the example of how it is now known that red blood cells can change their volume in response to pressure. This is important knowledge for how bodies fight some diseases, like malaria.
Patapoutian was born in Bierut, Lebanon in 1967. His family moved to America while he was a youth. He is currently a Professor at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California.
Julius was born in New York. The 65-year-old now lives in San Francisco where he is a professor at the University of California.
The Nobel Assembly, based out of Sweden, struggled to get into contact with both men to notify them of the prize announcement because of the time difference. When reached, Julius initially thought it was a prank until he watched the video for himself.
Patapoutin said, “[Perlman] somehow found my father’s, who’s 92 years old, lives in Los Angeles, and he called me. And so I heard it from him, which was very special.”
The 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine is worth roughly $1.15m and will be split between the two winners.
The Nobel Prize committee announced the 2021 Physics winners earlier today. Scientists Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi were awarded the 2021 Nobel prize for their work involving natural systems and climate research.