Why the latest Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology is more interesting than it seems

I do not know if you have stopped to think how it is possible that the interaction of a substance with the receptors of the tongue or nose ends up being recognized with a certain taste or smell. I also do not know if we all truly understand how a photon interacting with a cell in the retina allows us to recognize a color, and millions of those photons, an entire landscape. I don’t know if everyone sees as incredible as I do that simple air waves, channeled through the inner ear circuits, make us enjoy the sound of the wind, a symphony, a conversation or, why not, the bustle of the city.

All these sensations are due to the fact that we have cells located in certain organs that react with substances, photons or waves and emit signals that reach the brain. There, with everything integrated, we can realize how juicy and appetizing the dish is that we see, smell and end up tasting while listening to pleasant music.

In all this universe of senses, there is usually one that we put aside: touch. Well, touch and not just touch, but any sensation linked to touch. Very especially pressure receptors such as mechanoreceptors, temperature receptors or thermoreceptors and pain receptors or nocireceptors.

They are very important receptors for people who lack sight and who perceive much of their surroundings by touch. So crucial as to inform us that what we are going to touch is too hot or cold and that it can end up damaging our skin. And if there is something wrong with our leg, they warn us with pain, an unpleasant but vital sensation.

So important are they the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has awarded two researchers focused on their study. An award that highlights the importance of basic research to know how our body works and, from there, to be able to find solutions to problems.

David Julius.
Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

David Julius and the pain receptors

David Julius is one of those examples of a researcher trained in multiple laboratories until he joined the Department of Physiology at the University of California at San Diego, where he is currently a professor. His research has focused on understanding how the cells that produce the alarm signal that we recognize as pain are activated.

Pain alerts us that something harmful is happening. But it is also a great health problem when it becomes chronic, such as inflammatory processes or fibromyalgia, among other ailments. Dr. Julius focused on this problem by discovering the receptor that caused the burning sensation we have when we eat spicy foods and delving into cellular and molecular mechanisms related to pain.

Julius’s group discovered that Capsaicin, a compound found in many spicy foods, interacted with a protein that activated a signal in certain cells that transmitted a sensation of heat to the brain. However, when the sensation was high, these cells also transmitted pain.

Pulling the thread, his research group also located the receiver for the cold which, curiously, is the same as for menthol. They also found that both the receptors for heat and cold are very similar. In other words, our temperature-sensitive cells contain similar receptors to alert the body to both high and low temperatures. In addition, both end up producing a sensation of pain.

The molecular mechanisms discovered by Dr. Julius have been essential to focus pain therapies, opening the search for more specific drugs for its treatment.

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Ardem Patapoutian.
Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

Ardem Patapoutian and neuropathic pain

Ardem Patapoutian met Dr. Julius at the University of California in San Francisco when he was doing a postdoctoral stay. An Armenian immigrant, he came to the United States with the intention of becoming a doctor, but was soon caught up in the magic of scientific research. He received a Bachelor of Science from the University of California at Los Angeles, later obtaining a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology. He is currently a professor in the department of Neuroscience at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in California.

His research focused on other receptors – those that respond to pressure, and not just in the skin, but also in the blood vessels. We do not realize it, but pressure forces are continually incident or produced in our body, and these receptors inform us whether we are sitting, lying down, with our hand on the keyboard or even if our heart is pumping well.

Using basic cell culture techniques, Dr. Patapoutian’s group developed cells that responded to pressure. From there, using gene modifications, he discovered which genes were responsible for these responses. They found a series of genes that encoded proteins as channels for positive ions that they called Piezo. These proteins are those that activate cells that respond to mechanical stimuli and that inform the brain that we are being caressed, we are sitting, we have been pushed or someone pinches us.

But they have other functions. One of these proteins, Piezo2, is the one that informs us that the bladder is full. You can already imagine how important it is, especially at night. But it is also important for the integrity of skeletal muscle and its lack causes diseases caused by poor assembly of muscles with bones. And recently have been found in plants where they also exert pressure-reporting functions that is exerted on the plant.

An award for basic research

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine rewards basic research that seeks to learn how we are and what happens in our body. That tries to decipher how a cell is capable of capturing a physical variable such as temperature or pressure and transmitting it to the brain so that the body responds to these stimuli.

The proteins involved in these responses are important in different diseases and, once we know which protein works and how it works, we can find solutions to diseases that cause pain, lack of sensitivity or excess of it.

Again, knowledge opens doors to improve health.

We would love to give thanks to the author of this short article for this remarkable content

Why the latest Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology is more interesting than it seems