Nobel Prize for Medicine: what Julius and Patapoutian discovered

The two discoveries awarded with the Nobel Prize for Medicine reveal the mechanism underlying the perception of pain.

The Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology was awarded as usual by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, after a months-long selection process: this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology went to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, for their discovery of the mechanisms that allow us to perceive temperature and touch.

The two Nobel Prize-winning research papers pave the way for important studies on how the human body perceives the outside world, and how pain mechanisms originate.

Julius: The Power of Chili

Julius and Patapoutian's discoveries "have allowed us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical forces can activate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive the world around us," according to the prize announcement.

The Nobel Prize for Medicine went to two important discoveries in a field, that of sensory perception, whose functioning is very often taken for granted.

We know we can perceive cold, heat or the roughness of an object by touch, yet until the 1990s the mechanisms of tactile perception remained something of a mystery. The Nobel Prize to David Julius starts from here, from those nineties that saw the beginning of his capsaicin-based experiment. Capsaicin is the compound responsible for the burning sensation caused by touching or ingesting chili peppers. Thanks to a monumental study, which used databases with millions of genes of sensory neurons subjected to the burning sensation of chili peppers, Julius has identified a class of proteins called TRP, pronounced "trip".

In addition to capsaicin, harmful substances produced by plants and animals, such as toxins from the venom of the tarantula and the coral snake, have been used for the purpose. The class of TRP proteins would be at the base of the signaling apparatus of pain within the nervous system.

The burning sensation induced by the contact with hot pepper has therefore a responsible, a sort of "sensor" located in the nerve endings of the skin which responds not only to heat, by activating over 43°C, but also to the sensation of burning, cold, hot and pain.

Patapoutian: where pain comes from

Maybe even more so than the discovery of the Nobel co-graduate, Ardem Patapoutian's research is of fundamental importance for the future development of drugs and therapies against pain.

The pharmaceutical industry has already expressed interest in developing Julius' intuition for the creation of new drugs that "interrupt" the sensation of pain by acting on TRP channels. In that sense, Patapoutian's discovery seems even more impactful, as it is being used to develop treatments for as-yet unresolved conditions such as those related to chronic pain.

Patapoutian discovered another class of sensors, which respond to mechanical stimuli not only in the skin, but also in internal organs. The discovery of the Piezo1 and Piezo2 genes earned the Lebanese scientist a Nobel Prize, and the study finally paves the way for research into the molecular mechanisms underlying pain, which have yet to be elucidated.

As the Nobel jury explained, the two scientists answered the question of "how nerve impulses are initiated so that temperature and pressure can be sensed."

The interaction between our senses and our surroundings is a subject of extreme complexity, still not fully investigated by the natural sciences.The two discoveries awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine shed light on some critical links in understanding how our perception of the world works.