Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries of temperature and touch receptors
The two US-based scientists received the award for describing the mechanisms by which nerve impulses perceive hot, cold, touch and pressure.
Julius is a professor at the University of California at San Francisco. Patapoutian is a professor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute of Scripps Research in La Jolla, California.
“Our ability to feel heat, cold and touch is essential to our survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us,” the Nobel Assembly said in a statement announcing the award.
The findings will be vital for the development of treatments for chronic pain and other conditions, said Professor David Paterson, president of the Physiological Society in the UK.
“How we feel temperature, touch and movement are some of the big questions for humanity,” Paterson said.
Thomas Perlmann, secretary general of the Nobel Assembly, said the discovery “opens up the secrets of nature… It explains at the molecular level how these stimuli are converted into nerve signals. It is an important and profound discovery.
The starting point for the couple’s groundbreaking discoveries was Julius’ work with the humble chili pepper – or more specifically, capsaicin, the pungent compound that causes a burning sensation when we eat peppers.
“It was a very smart thing to do because the chili, or the capsaicin in pepper, was known to trigger nerves or pain. David Julius thought it could lead to a breakthrough if we really understood the molecular mechanisms behind it. the way that happens, ”Perlmann explained to CNN.
Julius and his team have created a library of millions of DNA fragments corresponding to genes expressed in sensory neurons that can respond to pain, heat and touch. They then inserted genes from this collection into cells that don’t normally respond to capsaicin to find the only gene causing the sensitivity.
Julius later realized that this capsaicin receptor they discovered is also a heat-sensing receptor that is activated at temperatures perceived to be painful, the Nobel committee said.
“That was the path to these discoveries – the mechanism for sensing how nerves can actually be activated. When we encounter stimuli – temperature, mechanics, touch and pressure. The chili was the handle but the discovery was much more. deep than that, ”Perlmann said.
Patapoutian’s work led to the discovery of sensors in the skin and internal organs that respond to “mechanical stimuli” felt in the form of touch and pressure.
With his colleagues, he identified a cell line that reacted when its individual cells were pricked with a micropipette. The team then identified 72 candidate genes that could encode receptors and “turned them off” one by one to find the one responsible for mechanosensitivity.
Abdel El Manira, deputy member of the Nobel committee for physiology and medicine, said the discoveries were made more than ten years ago. but were particularly poignant given the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is the right time (for that) to be recognized. It has profoundly changed our view of how we perceive the world … Over the past year, we have missed our sense of touch – during ‘a hug for example. These are the receptors that give us a feeling of warmth and closeness, “he said.
Mike Caterina, Solomon H. Snyder Professor of Neurosurgery at the John Hopkins School of Medicine, worked with Julius in his lab as a postdoctoral researcher in the mid-1990s, when the first discoveries about capsaicin in chili peppers were made.
“It had been a holy grail in the area of pain. People knew this receptor existed but there was no molecular grip,” Caterina said.
“The sensation we get when we eat spicy food is something so familiar and it has personal and cultural significance to so many people and everyone has a history of hot food and everyone has experienced painful heat. . ”
“So to make these two very tangible experiences explainable with a single molecule, that’s what really made this work so exciting for us.”