U.S. scientists win Nobel Prize for discovery of temperature, touch receptors

The US scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the award Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discoveries of receptors that enable humans to feel temperature and touch, the gathering announced on Monday.

Julius, a professor and chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, has used a compound made from chili peppers to identify a sensor in the skin’s nerve endings that is responsive to heat, according to the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute.

Patapoutian, a professor in the Neuroscience Department at Scripps Research, a scientific research institute in California, used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a new class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs.

David Julius pictured in San Francisco in 2019. UCSF / Noah Berger / Reuters file

The winners solved the question of how nerve impulses are triggered so that temperature and pressure can be measured, according to the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institutet.

“This really reveals one of nature’s secrets, being one of our senses,” said Thomas Perlmann, Secretary General of the Nobel Committee and the Nobel Assembly, who announced the winners of this year’s award. “It explains at the molecular level how … these stimuli can be converted into nerve signals so that we can adapt,” he added. “It is actually something that is vital to our survival, so it is a very important and profound discovery.”

Nils-Göran Larsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee on Physiology or Medicine 2021, said there are many medical problems related to pain and that the novel receptors could become targets for drug development in the future and help develop treatments.

“We are celebrating a very important, fundamental scientific discovery of temperature and touch receptors,” he said.

Professor Ardem Patapoutian of the Department of Neuroscience at the Scripps Institute.Ardem Patapoutain / via Reuters

These groundbreaking discoveries sparked intense research and, according to a statement released by the congregation, resulted in a rapid increase in our understanding of how our nervous systems perceive heat, cold, and mechanical stimuli.

Perlmann added that the reason for the few minutes delay was that he had just reached the two men with the help of a father and a sister-in-law. He said that while he only had a few minutes to speak to them, they were happy and surprised, if not “a little shocked”.

Julius was born in New York in 1955, while Patapoutian was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1967 and later moved to the United States.

Also this year, the award is of particular importance as the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and the importance of medical research is of particular interest. The virus has killed more than 4.8 million people worldwide so far. according to a balance sheet from Johns Hopkins University.

The award comes with a cash prize of SEK 10 million (over US $ 1,143,000) owed to a legacy of Swedish inventor and entrepreneur Alfred Nobel 125 years ago.

Nobel stated in his will that most of his estate should be converted into a fund and invested. The income from these investments will then be distributed annually in the form of prizes to those who have “brought the greatest benefit to mankind” in the past year.

Every year the Nobel Committee sends out letters of invitation to selected members of the broader scientific community to nominate one to three people who have made a discovery in physiology or medicine.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded 111 times to 222 people between 1901 and 2020.

Two Americans and a British won the Hepatitis C Virus Discovery Award last year when the coronavirus hit the world.

Prizes in physics, chemistry, literature, peace, and economics will be announced in the coming days.

The Associated Press contributed.

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