Scientists Who Unlocked Secrets of Pain Sensation Win Nobel Prize

Megan Brooks

October 04, 2021

Physiologist David Julius, PhD, University of California San Francisco, and neuroscientist Ardem Patapoutian, PhD, Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, have jointly been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.

Their discoveries paved the way for new treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain.

"Our ability to sense heat, cold, and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us," the Nobel committee, in Stockholm, Sweden, said in a news 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? This question has been solved by this year's Nobel Prize laureates."

Science Heats Up

Julius and his collaborators used capsaicin, a pungent compound found in chili peppers that produces a burning sensation, to identify TRPV1, an ion channel activated by painful heat.

"The discovery of TRPV1 was a major breakthrough leading the way to the unravelling of additional temperature-sensing receptors," the committee said.

Both Julius and Patapoutian used menthol to identify another receptor called TRPM8 that is activated by cold. Additional ion channels related to TRPV1 and TRPM8 were identified and found to be activated by a range of different temperatures.

The discoveries fueled other scientists to investigate the roles of these channels in thermal sensation.

"Julius' discovery of TRPV1 was the breakthrough that allowed us to understand how differences in temperature can induce electrical signals in the nervous system," the committee noted.

Science Under Pressure

As the mechanisms for temperature sensation began to unravel, Patapoutian and his collaborators used cultured pressure-sensitive cells to identify an ion channel activated by mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs. It was given the name Piezo1, after the Greek word for pressure.

Through its similarity to Piezo1, a second gene was discovered and named Piezo2. Sensory neurons were found to express high levels of Piezo2 and further studies firmly established that Piezo1 and Piezo2 are ion channels that are directly activated by the exertion of pressure on cell membranes.

"The groundbreaking discoveries of the TRPV1, TRPM8, and Piezo channels by this year's Nobel Prize laureates have allowed us to understand how heat, cold, and mechanical force can initiate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world around us," the Nobel committee said.

Julius and Patapoutian will receive a gold medal and share the $1.14 million prize money.

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