The 2021 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine has been awarded to two researchers based in universities in California who carried out independent work into unravelling the mystery of how our bodies sense touch and temperature.
Professor David Julius of the University of California in San Francisco used a hot chilli pepper to help identify nerve sensors in the human skin that react to capsaicin - the active component in chillies that makes us perceive them as hot. Professor Ardem Patapoutian, of Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, undertook complex experiments on 72 different genes and discovered further receptors that respond to touch. This research explains why a feeling of warmth and closeness can be felt after a hug as skin receptors react to the physical impact and touch of another person.
The Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute, who awarded the prize, said that the research had made a huge breakthrough in understanding how we sense the world around us, from feeling the urge to pull our hand away from a flame, to even standing upright.
Accepting the prize, Professor Patapoutian said: “(For) us being in the field of sense, touch and pain, this was the big elephant in the room where we knew they existed, we knew they did something very different". The scientists hope that their research can now be used to find new ways to treat chronic pain. Professor Julius’ work was driven by a fascination for how natural products can be used to probe biological function and in 2017, he previously said in an interview that he hoped his research would one day deliver new ideas and insights into “treating pain, pharmacologically and other ways”.
The winners will share the Nobel Prize money of 10m Swedish kronor (£845,000) but won’t be attending the annual Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden which was cancelled for the second year running due to worries about the spread of COVID-19.
Further 2021 Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and physics will be announced this week.
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