The winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine are David Julius & Ardem Patapoutian. The award was given for the discovery of the receptors that enable us to sense temperature and touch. The prize is worth 10 million Swedish kronor (1,145,195 US dollars), which will be shared among the winners.
The award recognizes how the scientists have helped us understand how our senses work – in particular somatosensation, a mixed sensory category that allows us to understand our surroundings and respond to them. The receptors discovered by the two researchers and their teams let humans feel temperature, pain, and pressure.
“The work [...] has unlocked one of the secrets of nature by explaining the molecular basis for sensing temperature and mechanical force,” Professor Patrik Ernfors, an expert in sensory biology at the Karolinska Institute and a member of the Nobel committee said in a press conference.
The work conducted by Julius and Patapoutian led us to know the molecules, cells, and mechanisms behind pain and sensation in the skin and deeper tissues. The research is exciting beyond understanding how we perceive the world. Many are hopeful that such breakthroughs will lead to new therapies for the management of chronic pain, which is too often ignored.
Their work has already received accolades over the years, with this year’s Nobel Prize adding to the deserved recognition for the work of these two scientists and their dedicated teams.
“I just wanted to go in and help to lay the groundwork for the most basic question on how we detect things in our environment that cause pain,” Professor Julius, who works at the University of California, San Francisco told IFLScience in 2019 after winning the Breakthrough Prize.
Detection of stimuli such as heat, cold, pain, or pressure is done by sensory neurons and their receptors. This information is then relayed to the central nervous system via the spinal cord and sent towards the brain. Nerve endings and the molecular sensors they use are key aspects in some types of chronic pain such as arthritis or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). How these nerve endings differ between those who suffer from these conditions and those who don’t is at the center of Julius’ research.
One crucial aspect of Julius' research came from chilli peppers, and the discovery that capsaicin – the molecule that makes chillis hot – activates a temperature sensor the ion channel TRPV1 which is also activated by high temperatures. This was published by Julius and colleagues in 1997.
For Patapoutian, the motivation was trying to understand how the body turns physical forces such as pressure into chemical signals that the body can understand. This has led to the discovery of the Piezo receptors, with one of them – PIEZO2 – connecting things like the sensation of a full bladder or that your skin is being caressed.
Discoveries in this novel field are still happening and applications are still being worked out, but the potential is – if you’d forgive the pun – palpable.