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Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize Awarded for Research About Temperature and Touch

Story by Benjamin Mueller, Marc Santora and Cora Engelbrecht

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Published on October 8, 2021 7:24 AM
David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian were honored for their discoveries about how heat, cold and touch can initiate signals in the nervous system. Dr. Patapoutian said that the committee eventually reached his 94-year-old father on a landline, who in turn called Dr. Patapoutian to tell him, “I think you won the Nobel Prize.”
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly on Monday to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, two scientists who independently discovered key mechanisms of how people sense heat, cold, touch and their own bodily movements.

Dr. Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, used a key ingredient in hot chili peppers to identify a protein in nerve cells that responds to uncomfortably hot temperatures.

Dr. Patapoutian, a molecular biologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., led a team that, by poking individual cells with a tiny pipette, hit upon a receptor that responds to pressure, touch and the positioning of body parts.

After Dr. Julius's pivotal discovery of a heat-sensing protein in 1997, pharmaceutical companies poured billions of dollars into looking for nonopioid drugs that could dull pain by targeting the receptors. But while research is ongoing, the related treatments have so far run into huge obstacles, scientists said, and interest from drug makers has largely dried up...

David Julius

David Jay Julius is an American physiologist and Nobel Prize laureate known for his work on molecular mechanisms of pain sensation and heat, including the characterization of the TRPV1 and TRPM8 receptors that detect capsaicin, menthol, and temperature. He is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Julius won the 2010 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine and the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. He was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Ardem Patapoutian.

Early life and education
Julius was born to an Jewish family in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York. He earned his undergraduate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977. He attained his doctorate from University of California, Berkeley in 1984, under joint supervision of Jeremy Thorner and Randy Schekman, where he identified Kex2 as the founding member of furin-like proprotein convertases. In 1989, he completed his post-doctoral training with Richard Axel at Columbia University where he cloned and characterized the serotonin 1c receptor.

While at Berkeley and Columbia, Julius became interested in how Psilocybin mushrooms and LSD work, which led him to look more broadly into how things from nature interact with human receptors.

Research career
He started his career as faculty at the University of California, San Francisco in 1989. In 1997, Julius's lab cloned and characterized TRPV1 which is the receptor that detects capsaicin, the chemical in chili peppers that makes them 'hot'. They found that TRPV1 also detects noxious heat . TRPV1 is part of a large family of structurally related TRP cation channels. Animals that lack TRPV1 lose sensitivity to noxious heat and capsaicin.

Julius's lab has also cloned and characterized TRPM8 and TRPA1, both members of the TRP superfamily. They demonstrated that TRPM8 detects menthol and cooler temperatures and TRPA1 detects mustard oil . These observations suggested that TRP channels detect a range of temperatures and chemicals. David Julius's lab has also made contributions to the study of nociception by discovering toxins that modulate these channels, describing unique adaptations of the channels in diverse species and solving the cryo-EM structures of numerous channels.

From 2007–2020 Julius served as the editor of the peer-reviewed journal the Annual Review of Physiology. Awards
In 2000, Julius was awarded the inaugural Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize for his work on cloning the capsaicin receptor. In 2010, he won the Shaw Prize for his work identifying the ion channels involved in various aspects of nociception. In 2014, he was honored by Johnson & Johnson with the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research for discovering the molecular basis for pain and thermosensation. In 2017, he won the Gairdner Foundation International Award and the HFSP Nakasone Award. He has also been awarded the 2010 Prince of Asturias Prize for Technical and Scientific Research, the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, and the 2020 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience and the 2020 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award.

In 2021, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.

Ardem Patapoutian

Ardem P'at'ap'ut'ean}}; born 2 October 1967) is an American molecular biologist, neuroscientist, and Nobel Prize laureate. He is known for his work in characterizing the PIEZO1, PIEZO2, and TRPM8 receptors that detect pressure, menthol, and temperature. Patapoutian is a neuroscience professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2021 jointly with David Julius.

Patapoutian was born to an Armenian family in Beirut, Lebanon. He attended the American University of Beirut for a year before emigrating to the United States in 1986. He became a U.S. citizen. He received a B.S. degree in cell and developmental biology from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1990 and a Ph.D. degree in biology from the California Institute of Technology in 1996 under direction of Barbara Wold.

As a postdoctoral fellow, Patapoutian worked with Louis F. Reichardt at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2000, he became an assistant professor at the Scripps Research Institute. Between 2000 and 2014, he had an additional research position for the Novartis Research Foundation. Since 2014, Patapoutian has been an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute .

Patapoutian's research is into the biological receptors for temperature and touch . The knowledge is used to develop treatments for a range of diseases, including chronic pain. The discoveries made it possible to understand how heat, cold and mechanical forces trigger nerve impulses.

Patapoutian researches the signal transduction of sensors. To find the molecular basis for touch, Patapoutian and his collaborators inactivated genes until they identified the single one that, when disabled, made the cells insensitive. The channel integral to the sense of touch became known as PIEZO1, after the Greek word for pressure. Through its similarity to PIEZO1, a second gene was discovered and named PIEZO2. This ion channel, the more important of the two mechanoreceptors, is essential for the sense of touch. PIEZO1 and PIEZO2 channels have been shown to regulate additional important physiological processes including blood pressure, respiration and urinary bladder control.

Patapoutian also made significant contributions to the identification of novel ion channels and receptors that are activated by temperature, mechanical forces or increased cell volume. Patapoutian and co-workers were able to show that these ion channels play an outstanding role in the sensation of temperature, in the sensation of touch, in proprioception, in the sensation of pain and in the regulation of vascular tone. More recent work uses functional genomics techniques to identify and characterize mechanosensitive ion channels .

Awards and honors
Patapoutian has an h-index of 68 according to Google Scholar, and of 63 according to Scopus as of May 2020. He has been a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science since 2016, a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 2017 and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2020. In 2017, Patapoutian received the W. Alden Spencer Award, in 2019 the Rosenstiel Award, in 2020 the Kavli Prize for Neuroscience, and the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Biology / Biomedicine.

In 2021, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with David Julius for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch