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Sense of heat and touch – the medicine prize recognizes important physiological functions


This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is shared by David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, who are recognized for their discoveries on how the nervous system sends signals about temperature, touch and pressure. This was a surprising announcement that highlights important functions for our physiology, according to researcher Helena Backlund Wasling at the University of Gothenburg.

Helena Backlund Wasling is a researcher in neuroscience, focusing on the human brain and mechanisms for both touch and social interactions. Although she teaches about these findings every semester and deals with the concepts within her research group, she was surprised to hear that the discoveries have now been awarded the Nobel Prize.

“I am incredibly happy with this, as it focuses attention on the importance of these parts of our physiology. Skin sensation as a sensory organ is something we may think less about than other senses. We rarely think about what life would be like without sensations, but I can assure you that it would be enormously problematic.”

Two revolutionary parts to the prize

Thomas Perlmann presents the 2021 Nobel Laureates in Medicine, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian Photo: Cecilia Odlind/KI.
Thomas Perlmann presents the 2021 Nobel Laureates in Medicine, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian Photo: Cecilia Odlind/KI.
Photo: Cecilia Odlind, KI

When the prize was announced at a press conference at Karolinska Institutet, the Nobel Prize Committee stated that the two laureates, through pioneering research, have let us understand how cold, heat and mechanical stimuli can lead to nerve impulses that allow us to experience and adapt to the world around us. David Julius, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, identified a sensor in the nerve endings in the skin that responds to heat. His discovery was made possible through experiments using capsaicin, a compound from chili peppers. Ardem Patapoutian, from Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, is recognized for his research on how cells sense touch and how ion channels function at the molecular level.

Both parts of the prize are revolutionary for understanding our sensory experiences arising through the skin, says Backlund Wasling: “These sensory systems of feeling, pain and temperature enable us to constantly function and interact appropriately with our surroundings.”

Unexpected and well deserved

This Nobel Prize is for fundamental discoveries about mechanisms in skin sensors, says Johan Wessberg, professor of neurophysiology: “Insights into the skin have lagged behind our understanding of the senses of hearing and sight, but now our knowledge about the skin as a sensor organ is catching up. Thanks to the research that is now being recognized, we also know that capsaicin is a ligand for the TRPV1 channel, which is very important for pain research.”

The ion channels identified by the laureates are not only found in the skin but have also been shown to have important functions even in deeper structures in both the musculoskeletal system and the internal organs.

“This year’s Nobel Prize is unexpected, but it is a great and well-deserved award,” says Eric Hanse, professor of neurophysiology. “The ion channels are important for the body’s regulation of blood pressure and the bladder and for receptors in joints. This is about channels that have generally important functions, in addition to the sensations from the skin, which is the first thing that comes to mind.”

Hope for pain treatment

Pain conditions resulting from an injury to the nervous system are called neuropathic pain and are usually difficult to treat. The TRP channels covered by this year’s Nobel Prize are involved in the mechanisms behind these and other pain conditions, which provides hope that these discoveries can pave the way for new effective treatments.

“Without functioning sensors, it is difficult to imagine how we would even be able to drink a glass of water or handle the simplest tool. These discoveries not only give us a greater understanding of our basic functions, they will also potentially help people suffering from difficult-to-treat pain conditions,” says Helena Backlund Wasling.

•    Press release from the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet.
•    Scientific background.



Nobelpriset i fysiologi eller medicin 2021