- Two American scientists have been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in unlocking the mysteries of the sensation of touch.
- Scientists pieced together how nerve impulses in the skin are activated so that warmth and pressure may be sensed through tests that began in the 1990s.
- The physics Nobel Prize for 2021 will be revealed on October 5th, followed by the chemistry prize on October 6th.
Nobel Prize Awarded in Medicine
Two American scientists have been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in unlocking the mysteries of the sensation of touch.
Prof David Julius, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and Prof Ardem Patapoutian, a neuroscientist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, were honored for discovering receptors in the skin that detect heat, cold, and touch – making them essential for life. The research lays the path for a slew of new medical therapies for ailments including chronic pain.
The prize, presented on October 4th by the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, is worth ten million Swedish kronor (£845,000) and will be split evenly amongst the winners.
Prof Abdel El Manira, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute and member of the Nobel committee, believes that without receptors, we would be unable to detect our surroundings, feel the impulse to move our hand away from a flame, or even stand straight. He said that the results had “profoundly altered our concept of how we experience the world around us.”
Capsaicin used to locate heat receptors in nerve terminals
Scientists pieced together how nerve impulses in the skin are activated so that warmth and pressure may be sensed through tests that began in the 1990s.
Julius used capsaicin, the chemical that causes chili peppers to burn, to locate heat receptors in nerve terminals. Patapoutian, on the other hand, examined pressure-sensitive cells and identified new receptors that respond to being pushed and probed.
Julius and his colleagues made the first breakthrough when they generated a library of millions of strands of DNA that linked to genes in sensory nerve cells. They discovered one gene that caused cells to respond to the searing chemical after a laborious process that included inserting these genes into cells that did not typically respond to capsaicin. The gene enabled cells to produce TRPV1, a protein that was discovered to react to unpleasant heat.
Working separately, Julius and Patapoutian used menthol to identify TRPM8, a cold-sensing receptor, as well as a slew of others activated by a variety of temperatures.
Discovery of Piezo2
Following their accomplishment, Patapoutian and his colleagues set out to learn more about how cells respond to touch. They discovered one gene that allowed cells to respond — with a tiny electrical signal – when prodded with a micropipette after more tedious testing on 72 genes.
The gene encoded the instructions for a receptor known as Piezo1, after the Greek word for pressure. Soon after, they discovered Piezo2, a similar touch-sensitive receptor with a vital second job of perceiving body position and movement, known as proprioception.
The physics Nobel Prize for 2021 will be revealed on October 5th, followed by the chemistry prize on October 6th.