Two win Nobel Prize in medicine for discoveries on how we react to touch, heat
Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch, revelations that could lead to new ways of treating pain or even heart disease.
Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian identified receptors in the skin that respond to heat and pressure. Their work is focused on the field of somatosensation, which explores the ability of specialized organs such as eyes, ears and skin to see, hear and feel.
“This really unlocks one of the secrets of nature,” said Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Committee, in announcing the winners. “It’s actually something that is crucial for our survival, so it’s a very important and profound discovery.”
The committee said Julius, who was born in New York and now works at the University of California at San Francisco, used capsaicin, the active component in chili peppers, to identify the nerve sensors that allow the skin to respond to heat.
Patapoutian, who was born in Lebanon and now works at Scripps Research Institute at La Jolla, California, found separate pressure-sensitive sensors in cells that respond to mechanical stimulation, it said.
Perlmann said he managed to get hold of both of the winners — who shared the prestigious Kavli Award for Neuroscience last year — before Monday’s announcement.
“I (…) only had a few minutes to talk to them, but they were incredibly happy,” he said. “And as far as I could tell they were very surprised and a little bit shocked, maybe.”
The choice of Julius, 65, and Patapoutian underscored how little scientists knew about how our bodies perceive the external world before their discoveries — and how much there still is to learn, said Oscar Marin, director of the MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at King’s College London.