The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly on Monday to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.”
Their work sheds light on how to reduce chronic and acute pain associated with a range of diseases, trauma and their treatments.
“Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us,” the Nobel committee said in a news release. “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?
The pair made breakthrough discoveries that began intense research activities that in turn led to a rapid increase in our understanding of how our nervous system senses heat, cold and mechanical stimuli. The laureates identified critical missing links in our understanding of the complex interplay between our senses and the environment.
The 2021 Nobel Prizes
Specifically, Mr. Julius utilized capsaicin, a pungent compound from chili peppers that induces a burning sensation, to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat.
Mr. Patapoutian used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a novel class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs.
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.
In the 17th century, the philosopher René Descartes envisioned threads connecting different parts of the skin with the brain. In that way, when a flame touches the foot, a signal is sent to the brain. Subsequent research found that sensory neurons register changes in our environment.
In 1944, Joseph Erlanger and Herbert Gasser received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of different types of sensory nerve fibers that react to distinct stimuli, for example, in the responses to painful and nonpainful touch.
But a fundamental question has remained. How are temperature and mechanical stimuli converted into electrical impulses in the nervous system?
The work by Mr. Julius and Mr. Patapoutian, for the first time, allows 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.
Their work, the committee said, has already spurred intensive research into the development of treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain.
Who are the winners?
Dr. David Julius is a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. In the 1990s, his research into the chemical compound capsaicin revolutionized 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.
Ardem Patapoutian is a molecular biologist and neuroscientist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., which “focuses on identifying and characterizing ion channels and other sensors that translate mechanical stimuli to chemical signals,” according to the center’s website.
He received his Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology in 1996 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Southern California before joining the Scripps Research team in 2000. He was named to the National Academy of the Sciences in 2017, and in 2020 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 2020, Dr. Julius and Dr. Patapoutian received the The Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, which is presided over by the Norwegian government, for their groundbreaking discovery of proteins that help bodies sense pressure.
Who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in medicine?
Dr. Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice received the prize for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus. The Nobel committee said the three scientists had “made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.”
Who else won Nobel Prizes in science in 2020?
When will the other Nobel Prizes be announced?
There are two more science prizes. Physics will be announced on Tuesday, and Chemistry on Wednesday, both in Stockholm.
The prize in Literature will be announced in Stockholm on Thursday. Read about last year’s winner, Louise Glück.
The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Oslo. Read about last year’s winner, the World Food Program.
The Nobel in economic science will be announced in Stockholm on Oct. 11. Last year’s prize was shared by Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson.