The sense and sensibility led to medicine Nobel

Nobel Committee member Patrik Ernfors explains the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine during a press conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. — AP
Nobel Committee member Patrik Ernfors explains the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine during a press conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. — AP

The discovery was crucial to drugmakers looking to come up with possible treatments for chronic pain.



Scientific curiosity is largely the reason we make sense of ourselves and the world we inhabit better. Today, it is this resilience that has facilitated developments of vaccines in response to a virus that ushered in a pandemic that claimed thousands of lives across the world. One of the most important subjects of scientific curiosity has been the human body itself, how it functions, how it responds to different environments and why — the scientific community has spent years unlocking these mysteries and explaining them to the world. It’s strange because we think we know everything, but the enormous possibilities that a human body is capable of is a robust subject that continues to inspire research and analysis. One such possibility was examined to great success by two US-based scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian who spent years researching why and how the body feels heat, cold and touch — essentially sensations on which the foundations of our lives are based. This week, they became the recipients of Nobel Prize for Medicine.

The story of their research is fascinating, and began with… well… chilli peppers. In the 90s, Julius used a compound found in chilli peppers to ascertain why it causes burning sensation and discovered a sensor in skin’s nerve endings that react to heat. On the other hand, Patapoutian used “pressure sensitive cells” only to chance upon more sensors that respond to touch. Coming together, both scientists spent considerable time in spotting the genes that are involved in touch and heat, and having observed how those genes operate in cells, they conclusively discovered the molecular functioning that enables us to experience these sensations. This discovery was crucial to drug makers looking to come up with possible treatments for chronic pain. It has also furthered research on the possibility of manipulating the channels in our body that charge up when we come into contact with heat. Julius and Ardem have also, albeit individually, discovered receptors that actually enable us to sense cold. It is this work — sometimes conducted independently, and sometimes done in collaboration — that made way for the coveted prize, bringing an absolute sense of exhilaration in the scientific community.

The Nobel Committee itself did not mince any words when credited the duo for the breakthrough they have achieved, calling it the answer to the fundamental unsolved question in human biology and recognising how their endeavours have led the pharma industry to address the key questions. As part of the prize, the duo stands to win $1.14 million, along with a coveted medal. To the world that has benefited from their relentless research, the duo has opened a world of possibilities.


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