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October 4, 2021

Meet the 2 scientists who just won the Nobel Prize in Medicine

Daily Briefing

    David Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, and Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular biologist and neuroscientist at the Scripps Research Institute, have won this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work in understanding how we sense temperature and touch.

    About the winners

    Work conducted by Julius and Patapoutian led to a deeper understanding of how the human nervous system senses heat, cold, and mechanical stimuli, helping answer the question of how humans sense their environment.

    "Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us," the Nobel committee said in a release. "In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived?"

    Specifically, Julius used capsaicin, a compound found in chili peppers that creates a burning sensation, to identify a sensor within the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat.

    According to Jeremy Berg, a professor of computational and systems biology at the University of Pittsburgh, Julius's approach utilizing capsaicin "was quite clever, since the addition of a chemical is more specific and readily controlled than temperature or mechanical forces."

    "Once identified, this ion channel protein was shown to be sensitive to temperature and opened up the field," Berg said. "We all have likely experiences related to these channels as, for example, the pain we feel when a cut or burn is exposed to higher temperatures."

    Meanwhile, Patapoutian utilized pressure-sensitive cells to find a unique group of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli both within the skin and internal organs.

    According to the Nobel committee, the work conducted by Julius and Patapoutian helps us to understand the ways in which heat, cold, and mechanical stimuli can initiate nerve impulses that help us respond to our environment.

    That work is now being used to "develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain," the committee said. (Santora/Engelbrecht, New York Times, 10/4; Cooney/Molteni, STAT News, 10/4; Nobel committee release, 10/4)

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