Ardem Patapoutian and David Julius have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in identifying a new type of receptor which allows us to perceive temperature and pressure, according to the Nobel Prize Page. Patapoutian and Julius both won the 49th Annual Rosenthal Award in 2019 from the university, according to the Rosenthal Awards’ Past Winners page.
“Their discoveries have unlocked one of the secrets of nature by explaining the molecular basis for sensing heat, cold and mechanical force, which is fundamental for our ability to feel, interpret and interact with our internal and external environment,” according to the Nobel Prize Page.
Patapoutian and Julius’ research looks at the biology of touch, according to a New Atlas article, specifically with receptors that respond to one’s feeling of temperature and pressure. There are different receptors responsible for how the body responds to different stimuli from the environment and in turn how we perceive.
Work on this research began in the ’90s, according to the article. Julius and his team of researchers were looking at how receptors in the human body respond to painful heat sensations. At the same time, Patapoutian and his team were looking at receptors that respond to mechanical pressure, according to the article.
Julius and his team looked at the sensation felt when touching a “hot” chili pepper, which often leads to a burning sensation on the skin, according to the Nobel Prize press release. Scientists already knew that the chemical capsaicin is connected to the burning sensation, however, Julius’ team wanted to focus on the genes in sensory neurons which respond to the feeling of pain, heat and touch.
Patapoutian had discovered when testing mechanical pressure that when certain genes were “switched off,” or knocked out through research manipulation, the subject would not respond to electrical stimuli. They connected this to new ion channels named Piezo1 and Piezo2, according to the article.
Together, their work has revealed new paths for examining one’s sense of touch, in ways which were previously unaccounted for, according to the press release.
Julius’ research introduced the idea of new temperature receptors, also found by Patapoutian in research independent from Julius’. The receptors were named TRPV1, which are a type of temperature receptor. TRPV1 is activated when the human body is exposed to a temperature higher than 109°F, according to the article, when this threshold is reached ion channels open that then send pain signals to the brain. This would be activated if a person touched their hand on a hot surface, like a stove, and their brain would send a signal for them to move their hand away from the hot surface.
TRPM8 was also discovered, which is a temperature receptor specifically responsible for our feeling of cold temperatures, according to the article.
These receptors are very important in explaining the difference in perceiving and differentiating between hot temperatures, according to the article; the receptors can distinguish the difference between the hot temperature from sunlight on one’s skin and the burning sensation when placing a hand on a stove.
According to the press release, prior to Patapoutian and Julius’ research there were still questions around how the human nervous system converts temperature and mechanical stimuli into electrical impulses which the body can perceive.
Patapoutian and Julius are the co-winners of the 49th Annual Rosenthal Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research in 2019; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic they have been unable to receive their awards, according to a BrandeisNOW article. An online webinar will be hosted by the university on Oct. 12 to honor Patapoutian and Julius for winning the Rosenthal Award.
Patapoutian and Julius will, respectively, be the 37th and 38th recipients of the Rosenthal Award to go on to win a Nobel Prize for their work, though they will be the first recipients of the Rosenthal Award to receive their award as Nobel prize winners, according to the article.
Julius is a professor at University of California, San Francisco, according to his faculty page. Julius has received 24 awards for his work, including the Nobel Prize and the Rosenthal Award. His work centers around sensory systems that allow humans to perceive and experience the world around them, according to the page.
Patapoutian is a professor at Scripps Research Institution, according to his page. Patapoutian has been featured in many publications related to neuroscience and touch sensation research, according to the page. His work centers around the neuroscience behind sensing touch and pain and how molecular interactions allow humans to feel certain stimuli.