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Explained: How the work of 2021 Physiology Nobel winners can help treat chronic pain

American scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian have won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.

Nobel Committee member Patrik Ernfors, right, explains the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine during a press conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. (AP)

American scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian have won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.

Dr. Julius has been studying the different compounds in chili peppers and spider venom to understand how our bodies sense heat and chemical irritants. Decoding the neuroscience of pain can help develop new targets for pain therapy. Dr. Patapoutian helped discover a novel class of sensors in our skin and internal organs that respond to cold and other mechanical stimuli.

In its release, nobelprize.org said: “The groundbreaking discoveries by this year’s Nobel 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.”

What did they find?

In 1997, Dr. Julius and his team published a paper in Nature detailing how capsaicin, or the chemical compound in chilli peppers, causes the burning sensation. They created a library of DNA fragments to understand the corresponding genes and finally discovered a new capsaicin receptor and named it TRPV1. This discovery paved the way for the identification of many other temperature-sensing receptors.

According to a release from nobelprize.org, independently of one another, both David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian identified another new receptor called TRPM8, a receptor that is activated by cold. A paper published in Cell in 2002 by Dr. Patapoutian and team explains that this new receptor is specifically expressed in a subset of pain-and-temperature-sensing neurons.

Ardem Patapoutian further studied if these receptors can be activated by mechanical stimuli. His team poked cells with a micropipette and identified a cell line that produced an electric signal in response. They identified a single gene, which when silenced made the cells insensitive to the poking. They named this new mechanosensitive ion channel Piezo1.

“This knowledge [of the TRPV1, TRPM8 and Piezo channels] is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain,” adds the release.

Dr. Julius is currently a Professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “David’s work epitomizes the creativity, scientific rigor, and courage needed to pursue the major unsolved mysteries of biology and achieve the surprising discoveries that ultimately lead to crucial advances in human health,” UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood said in a release.

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Dr. Patapoutian is currently a Professor and Scientist at Scripps Research, La Jolla, California.

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First published on: 04-10-2021 at 17:28 IST
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