Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine 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 separately identified receptors in the skin as part of their work in the field of somatosensation, which explores the ability of specialised organs such as eyes, ears and skin to see, hear and feel. Julius used capsaicin, the active component in chili peppers, to help pinpoint the nerve sensors that respond to heat, while Patapoutian found pressure-sensitive sensors in cells that respond to mechanical stimulation, the committee said.
The Nobel Committee was of the view that their find really unlocks one of the secrets of nature and that it is actually something that is crucial for our survival, so it’s a very important and profound discovery. The committee said their discoveries get at one of the great mysteries facing humanity”: how we sense our environment. How are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived?” the committee asked in the announcement. “This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize Laureates.”
Julius, 65, said he hoped his work would lead to the development of new pain drugs, explaining that the biology behind even everyday activities can have enormous significance. Patapoutian, who was born in Lebanon, is based at Scripps Research Institute at La Jolla, California. The choice of winners underscored how little scientists knew about how our bodies perceive the external world before the discoveries and how much there still is to learn. While people understood the physiology of the senses, what they didn’t understand was how they sensed differences in temperature or pressure. Knowing how the body senses these changes is fundamental because once people know those molecules, they can be targeted. It’s like finding a lock and now people know the precise keys that will be necessary to unlock it.
Marin said the discoveries opened up an entire field of pharmacology and that researchers were already working to develop drugs to target the receptors they identified. Marin predicted that new treatments for pain would likely come first, but that knowing how the body detects changes in pressure could eventually lead to drugs for heart disease, if scientists can figure out how to alleviate pressure on blood vessels and other organs. Last year’s prize went to three scientists who discovered the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus, a breakthrough that led to cures for the deadly disease and tests to keep the scourge from spreading through blood banks.
The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.14 million). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895. The prize is the first to be awarded this year. The other prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.
Nobel ceremonies marred for the second year due to the pandemic with the result that Nobel Prize winners in science and literature will receive their awards in their home countries rather than Sweden for the second year running. The Nobel Foundation said a decision on the Peace Prize, which is usually awarded in Norway, had not been made yet. The winners are announced in early October and lavish ceremonies in the two Scandinavian capitals usually follow on 10 December, the death anniversary of founder Alfred Nobel.
Last year, the foundation gave out the science and literature prizes in the laureates’ respective home countries because of virus travel restrictions. There was also no Oslo fanfare for the peace prize, which was awarded to the World Food Programme. Uncertainty about the course of the pandemic and international travel possibilities is the reason why the 2021 laureates will receive their medals and diplomas in their home countries. The foundation said the 2021 ceremonies would be a mixture of digital and physical events, similar to last year. Stockholm City Hall will, however, host video presentations from the laureates and “hopefully the ceremony will have a local audience”. Traditionally, the prize-winners join the Swedish royal family and some 1,300 guests for a banquet at the City Hall after the award ceremony. The Nobel banquet had not previously been called off since 1956, when a row with the Soviet Union over repression in Hungary sparked a cancellation.
Covid-19, though, has prevented the candidates en masse from coming to Stockholm and Oslo, a first in peacetime since 1924. That year, a combination of sick winners and unawarded prizes led to the cancellation of the ceremonies in both capitals. While the 2020 prizes were awarded as the pandemic raged, the nominations were made before the coronavirus began spreading. This year, however, potential winners have been nominated — and the winners chosen — during the contagion. Though current events rarely dictate the areas the committees decide to highlight, the bookmakers have the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a likely winner of this year’s Peace Prize. The Nobels are celebrating their 120th anniversary since the first awards commenced in 1901.