The 49th annual Rosenstiel award honored the pioneering work of David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian concerning temperature, touch and pain sensation in a recent webinar. The ceremony featured congratulatory remarks from President Ron Liebowitz, Professor of Biology James Haber (BIOL) and Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry Chris Miller (BCHM).
The timing of this Rosenstiel award ceremony is unusual. While the 49th Rosenstiel award winners were announced in 2019, the ceremony was postponed due to the pandemic, Liebowitz explained. Therefore, although last spring marked the 50th Rosenstiel award, the 49th award’s ceremony was postponed till the fall of 2021.
The webinar’s hosts James Haber and Ron Liebowitz both note the correlation between Rosenstiel award winners and Nobel Prize winners: 36 of the past Rosenstiel winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. However, Julius and Patapotuin share the unique position of having received a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine prior to receiving their Rosenstiel award.
Despite the clear trend, Brandeis has “never really tried to be predictors of Nobel Prizes but [rather] to identify people early on in their careers to acknowledge pioneering work,” Haber said.
Julius and Patapoutian largely used techniques in molecular biology in order to investigate their research interests. Haber contextualized the nature of this type of research saying, “We sometimes forget what it means to do molecular biology…This scale on these remarkable devices David and Ardem are talking about are that small, and yet we feel them profoundly as pain and touch and temperature receptors.”
Julius’ most recent work sought to understand the molecular mechanism of pain sensation. He describes his motive for understanding pain sensation, describing how feeling pain serves crucial evolutionary benefits in organisms.
Despite the significance of pain and pressure sensation, understanding how the system worked was largely an enigma, Julius explained. Unlike other sensory modalities like touch or smell, pain reception is not localized to one part of the body. This heightened the difficulty of determining how pain sensation occurs.
Using cells’ responses to capsaicin, a compound present in chili peppers, Julius pinpointed a receptor protein in neurons that responds to high temperatures by sorting through a library of millions of protein-coding DNA fragments. The implications of this research have clinical connections in the treatment of chronic pain, Julius noted.
Patapoutian too, had research interests in touch and pressure sensation. By using a microscopic pipette tip, he poked individual cells to create stimuli and then observed which receptor seemed to be responding to the stimulus.
Collectively, the two scientists’ independent research shed light onto the few remaining questions in the understanding of molecular sensation: pain and pressure sensation.
Julius first became interested in science when he was learning about the trajectory of a baseball in physics in high school, according to a recent New York Times article. The article also describes how Patapoutian grew up in Lebanon during its civil war and fled to the United States when he was 18. He joined a research laboratory in college and discovered his passion for basic science.
Now, Julius is a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. Over the course of his career, he has gone on to win the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, the Dr. Paul Jannsen Award for Biomedical Research and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Ardem Patapoutian is a Professor of Neuroscience working at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. His other recent awards include the Alden Spencer Award from Columbia University, and a nomination into the National Academy of Sciences as well as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Liebowitz honored their accomplishments, saying, “David and Ardem have unlocked one of the most elusive biological mysteries of how we perceive and understand the world around us. Their discovery has profound implications for the future of medical research, making them and their research true embodiments of what we hope to recognize and celebrate with this award.”