Nobel Prize in Medicine for David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for “the receptors of temperature and touch”

The judge from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Monday awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine to researchers David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for “their discovery of receptors for temperature and touch.”

The findings of the two winners “have allowed us to understand how heat, cold and pressure can generate nerve impulses that allow us to perceive the world around us and adapt to it,” says the statement from the Karolinska Institute. His research has important applications in the treatment of pain and many diseases.

American David Julius, a 66-year-old University of California physiologist, identified the sensor for nerve endings in the skin that respond to heat using capsaicin, a compound in hot peppers.

Ardem Patapoutian, 54, is an Armenian biologist and neuroscientist who grew up in Lebanon and is currently a US citizen. Patapoutian discovered cellular sensors in the skin and also in internal organs that respond to pressure.

The neuroscientist Holly Ingraham, Julius’s wife, tweeted this morning a photo of her husband just awakened in the middle of the morning by the call of Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the committee that awards the award.

On the website of Julius’ laboratory there is a photograph of a tarantula on a huge red pepper. It is a compendium of his work. At the end of the 90s, this physiologist began to work with capsaicin, the molecule present in chillies and peppers that causes a sensation of heat and burning to taste. His team identified the gene and protein responsible for translating the capsaicin signal into a nerve impulse that travels to the brain: the TRPV1 receptor.

This receiver is also responsible for transmitting the sensation of heat. A few years later, Julius’ team and Patapoutian’s team working independently turned to menthol, the ingredient in chewing gums that creates a sensation of freshness in the mouth, to identify the receptor responsible for feeling cold: TRPM8.

These findings led to the identification of other receptors involved in the different degrees of cold, heat and pain associated with them. Julius is currently studying spider and reptile poisons and their connection to pain. It also tries to understand senses that humans do not have, such as the ability of bats and snakes to perceive infrared light or to pick up electric fields from sharks and rays.

In 2010, the team led by Ardem Patapoutian, a researcher at the Scripps Research Institute in California, described for the first time two receptors responsible for sensing external pressure: Piezo1 and Piezo2.

These receptors regulate touch on the skin and internal organs, breathing, blood pressure, and control of urine in the bladder. The second receptor is also essential for proprioception, the sense of the position of the different parts of the body.

“I proposed these two scientists for the Nobel for the first time 10 years ago; their finding is a qualitative leap in the understanding of pain ”, explains Carlos Belmonte, researcher at the Institute of Neurosciences of Alicante. This doctor and physiologist explains the importance of the discovery. “In the skin and other organs there are nerve endings known as sensory receptors that allow us to selectively distinguish the intensity of a physical or chemical stimulus. These receivers are normally closed. When there is a stimulus, they open and let sodium ions pass, generating a nerve impulse that goes to the brain. Before Julius and Patapoutian’s work, only the molecules involved in vision were known. They identified those related to the rest of the body. They were the ones who identified the pain molecule ”, he details.

Belmonte explains that thanks to the work of the two laureates it has also been possible to understand that after an episode of intense pain these receptors can be affected by the molecules that generate inflammation, so that they continue to generate pain signals for a long time and the affected area remains long-term sensitized.

“These investigations open up a whole field for the manufacture of compounds that can modify them and treat ailments such as chronic and inflammatory pain,” highlights Óscar Marín, neuroscientist at King’s College and secretary of the jury for the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge awards. Both researchers won the last edition of the Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Biology and Biomedicine from the BBVA Foundation. Julius also won the 2010 Prince of Asturias Award.

Marín also highlights the originality and simplicity of the initial experiments of both scientists. “It’s what great ideas have. Now those experiments seem obvious to us, but actually only occur to a few minds. It’s fascinating ”, he highlights.

Belmonte’s team has relied on the work of the two Nobel laureates. His team has developed a drug to treat pathological dry eyes. “The dryness of the eyes is perceived through the TRPM8 receptor, in charge of feeling the cold. Our molecule makes it possible to generate this signal, so that blinking and tearing is activated ”, he adds.

Last year, the distinction went to the American scientists Harvey J. Alter and Charles M. Rice as well as to the British Michael Houghton for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus. Before the advances of Alter, Rice and Houghton, they were known hepatitis A and B viruses, but the majority of cases originating from blood transfusions remained unexplained, the jury noted last year. “The discovery of the hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining chronic hepatitis cases and made it possible to analyze the blood and develop new drugs that have saved millions of lives,” said scientists from the Karolinska Institute.

The prize is endowed with ten million Swedish crowns, about 985,000 euros. This award opens the round of announcements this week, which will continue on Tuesday with that of Physics, on Wednesday with that of Chemistry, on Thursday with that of Peace and, finally, that of Economics, which will be announced on Monday of the next week.

For the second year since 2020, the handover ceremony and banquet will not be held in Stockholm, Reuters reports. The winners will receive their medals and diplomas at home and the award ceremony will be held by videoconference.

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Nobel Prize in Medicine for David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for “the receptors of temperature and touch”