This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Professors David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian from the United States for their independent discoveries on the detection of temperature and touch by our nervous system. This has heralded much excitement among the pain community, as the discoveries might help shed light on how to better diagnose and treat ongoing nociception and certain pain conditions.

Heat, cold and touch are crucial for experiencing the world around us and for our own survival. Our somatosensory system needs to be able to detect if these stimuli are actually or potentially tissue damaging events. This is a prerequisite for the acute warning function of physiological nocioception. Problems in our somatosensory system in how we sense touch or temperature may lead to abnormalities in how nervous system sends electrical impulses to the brain and spinal cord.

Prof. David Julius discovered the cellular mechanisms and underlying gene that helps sensory receptors respond to heat and cold, and form electrical impulses. This would help us understand what is happening if we hold a cup of coffee that is too hot for us, or ice cubes. Some experiments included capsaicin – a component in chillies. The discovered gene encodes a protein, called TRPV. This has been implicated in chronic pain.

Prof. Ardem Patapoutian discovered the cellular mechanisms and underlying gene that helps sensory receptors responds to mechanical stimuli (e.g. touch). This would help us understand what is happening at the cellular level when walking along a forest and we stub our toe. The discovered gene encodes proteins called Piezo1 and Piezo2, which are important in proprioception.

These breakthroughs in understanding the underlying mechanisms of temperature and touch detection could provide novel targets for the development of new nociceptive and pain treatments.

To read more about the discoveries, visit https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2021/prize-announcement/