Physicists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian were jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday. The two scientists were recognized for their work in discovering fundamental processes of how humans perceive heat, cold, touch, as well as their own body motions.
A crucial component found in hot chili peppers was utilized by Dr. Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, to discover a protein found in nerve cells that reacts to uncomfortable temperatures.
Dr. Patapoutian, a molecular scientist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., led a team that discovered a receptor that reacts to pressure, touch, and the placement of body parts by probing individual cells with a micro pipette.
Immediately after Dr. Julius’s ground-breaking discovery of a heat-sensitive protein, pharmaceutical firms spent billions of dollars into the search for nonopioid medicines that might dull pain by targeting the receptors in the nervous system. However, experts say that, although research is still continuing, the associated therapies have so far encountered significant difficulties, and interest from pharmaceutical companies has mostly dwindled.
Before announcing the award at 2:30 a.m. local time in California, the Nobel committee had difficulty contacting either of the two winners. Dr. Julius stated in an interview that his phone rang with a text message from his sister-in-law, who informed him that she had received a call from the Nobel Assembly’s secretary-general but had declined to provide the man with Dr. Julius’s phone number because she did not want the man to know Dr. Julius’s identity.
Doctor Patapoutian, who is of Armenian descent, grew up in Lebanon throughout the country’s long and catastrophic civil war before coming to the United States with his brother in 1986 at the age of 18 to seek refuge in the United States. As part of his effort to establish residence in California in order to finance education, Dr. Patapoutian performed a variety of odd jobs for a year, including delivering pizzas and writing the weekly horoscopes for an Armenian newspaper in Los Angeles.
Dr. Julius, like many others, got obsessed with the issue of how the body’s sensory receptors functioned and became obsessed with it. He grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and said he first considered a career in science while attending nearby Abraham Lincoln High School, where a former minor league baseball player turned physics teacher spoke to students about calculating the trajectory of a baseball, which sparked his interest in the field.
Pain, according to him, is the most important sense system for survival. And there were few that were as misunderstood as this one. As a result, his laboratory began investigating the workings of a wide range of unpleasant natural substances, including toxins derived from tarantulas and coral snakes, capsaicin derived from chili peppers, and the chemicals that give horseradish and wasabi their distinctive pungent flavor and smell.