Ardem Patapoutian, a neuroscientist based at Scripps Research and elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has received the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with colleague David Julius for uncovering the receptors that enable human beings to feel touch and temperature.
The pair study somatosensation, which is how our skin and specialized organs feel sensation. “Imagine that you're walking barefoot across a field on this summer's morning,” Patrik Ernfors a member of the Nobel Committee, explained. “You can feel the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the morning dew, a caressing summer breeze and the fine texture of blades of grass underneath your feet. These impressions of temperature, touch and movement are feelings relying on somatosensation."
While Julius helped unravel the mystery of how our bodies sense warmth and cold by utilizing capsaicin, a key compound in chili peppers, Patapoutian dove deep into the processes that allow us to recognize touch.
He utilized pressure-sensitive cells to help uncover the sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in both internal organs and in the skin. After testing dozens of genes, he was eventually able to identify the gene that codes for the protein that senses pressure. Cells with this protein respond with electrical signals in response to touch. (Patapoutian wrote about some of his research for Science last year.)
“This really unlocks one of the secrets of nature,” Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Committee, said while announcing the winners. “It's actually something that is crucial for our survival, so it's a very important and profound discovery.”
Julius and Patapoutian’s findings are helping inform new research that could lead to the development of novel treatments for a range of ailments like chronic pain.
Patapoutian comes from humble roots. He was born in 1967 in Lebanon. After the country plunged into civil war in the 1980’s, Patapoutian and his brother decided to leave for the United States in 1986.
He worked a series of odd jobs in order to establish residency in the state of California, ranging from writing horoscopes for an Armenian newspaper (he has Armenian ancestry) to delivering pizzas. After gaining residency, he started attending college at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).
While at UCLA, he joined a research lab in order to build a relationship with a professor who could write him a recommendation letter for medical school. It was there that he fell in love with research. “That changed the trajectory of my career,” he told The New York Times in an interview, stating that when he was in Lebanon, he didn’t even know that he could choose to pursue a career as a scientist.
The Nobel committee struggled to reach Patapoutian before the announcement of their decision (which came at around 2:30 AM Pacific Standard Time). They ended up first talking to his 94-year-old father, who answered on a landline telephone.
“I think you won the Nobel Prize,” his father informed him.
The Nobel is the second major award Patapoutian and Julius have received for their groundbreaking work in the field of somatosensation. Last year, they were awarded the 2020 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.
For his part, Patapoutian feels moved by all the recognition. “I’m a bit overwhelmed,” he said, “but pretty happy.”