One of the two American scientists who won the 2021 Nobel Prize for medicine on Monday (October 04) said that his 94-year-old father called him at 2 a.m. to give him the news, which he called “a very special moment.”
Ardem Patapoutian won the prestigious award along with David Julius for the discovery of receptors in the skin that sense temperature and touch and could pave the way for new pain-killers.
Their work, carried out independently, has helped show how humans convert the physical impact from heat or touch into nerve impulses that allow us to “perceive and adapt to the world around us,” the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said.
“This knowledge is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain.”
Patapoutian was born in Lebanon in 1967 to Armenian parents and moved to Los Angeles in his youth.
“I guess I carry with me (a) perspective that is maybe different to many here,” he said Monday. “And as an almost a refugee from Lebanon, I’ve learned not to take things for granted but also have been really appreciative of the opportunities that I have [been] given in this country.”
Patapoutian is credited for finding the cellular mechanism and the underlying gene that translates a mechanical force on our skin into an electric nerve signal.
“I think the actual implications of where this could go and where the benefits to humanity could come is just starting to figure out,” he said. “So, there’s a long way ahead of us to figure out what… actual treatments that we could develop.”
Patapoutian is a professor at Scripps Research, La Jolla, California, having previously done research at the University of California, San Francisco, and California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.
New York-born Julius, 65, is a Professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), after earlier work at Columbia University, in New York.
His findings were inspired by his fascination for how natural products can be used to probe biological function and he used capsaicin, the molecule that makes chili peppers spicy by simulating a false sensation of heat, to understand the skin’s sense of temperature.
Both laureates were caught off guard, according to the committee. Professor Thomas Perlmann, Secretary-General for the Nobel Assembly and the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, described them as “incredibly happy and as far as I could tell very surprised and a little bit shocked.”
The prestigious Nobel prizes, for achievements in science, literature and peace, were created and funded in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel. They have been awarded since 1901, with the economics prize first handed out in 1969.
The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, shared in equal parts this year by the two laureates, often lives in the shadow of the Nobels for literature and peace, and their sometimes more widely known recipients.
But medicine has been thrust into the spotlight by the COVID-19 pandemic, and some scientists had suggested those who developed coronavirus vaccines could be rewarded this year or in coming years.
The pandemic continues to haunt the Nobel ceremonies, which are usually full of old-world pomp and glamour. The banquet in Stockholm has been postponed for a second successive year amid lingering worries about the virus and international travel. ($1 = 8.7272 Swedish crowns)
(Production: Ashraf Fahim)