Nobel Prize in medicine awarded to two U.S.-based scientists ‘for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch’

David Julius in his office at the UCSF Mission Bay campus. Photo: UCSF/Steve Babuljak
Ardem Patapoutian Photo: Scripps.edu

The Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded Monday (Oct. 4, 2021) to two U.S.-based scientists whose fundamental work revealed the basic biology that underlies the sensations of temperature and touch and could help pave the way for new treatments for pain.

David Julius at the University of California at San Francisco used capsaicin, the ingredient that gives chile peppers their kick, to identify the molecular receptors that convert heat into the feeling of pain. He shared the award with Ardem Patapoutian at Scripps Research, who discovered sensors that detect pressure.

“Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us. In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived?” the Nobel Assembly wrote in announcing the award. “This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize Laureates.”

Their work draws back the curtain on the biological circuitry that underlies humans’ ability to safely navigate and sense the world. It also laid the foundation for a new way to find potential drugs to treat pain, by screening thousands of compounds and watching how they interact with the receptor that is the source.

“If you want to block pain, this is the way to do it in a highly rational manner,” said Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

To understand why chile peppers can cause a painful, burning sensation, Julius in the late 1990s undertook a painstaking search for the gene that allows nerve cells to sense heat. That gene, called TRPV1, is activated by heat that is painful and was followed by the discovery of other genes involved in temperature perception. Using menthol as their stimulus, Julius and Patapoutian discovered a chemical receptor for cold, TRPM8.

Julius continued to identify the receptors behind sensation using other naturally occurring compounds, such as snake venom and wasabi.

To find the sensors that underlie touch, Patapoutian, at Scripps Research, poked cells with a tiny pipette tip to find the ones that responded with an electrical signal.

“Imagine that you’re walking backward across a field on a summer’s morning. You can feel the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the morning dew, a caressing summer breeze and the fine texture of blades of grass underneath your feet,” said Patrik Ernfors, a professor of tissue biology at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Those impressions, he said, are all possible because of the discovery of receptors that answered questions that have puzzled and intrigued humans for thousands of years.

After a year and a half when science has been instrumental in fighting a pandemic, members of the Nobel Committee were asked whether there was anything they had seen that might be worthy of a future Nobel and why this research was the most important science to honor this year.

“That may be a relevant question, but it’s not really how we work,” said Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Assembly and Committee, noting that the deliberations of the committee are private.

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