Ardem Patapoutian and David Julius, both Americans, identified skin receptors that respond to heat or pressure. Researchers are now working on drugs to target these receptors. The discoveries may lead to pain relief that is less dependent on addictive opioids, according to some. Despite the fact that these breakthroughs were made decades ago, they have yet to yield any new effective treatments.
The Nobel Committee stated that Julius of the University of California at San Francisco used capsaicin (the active component of chili peppers) to pinpoint nerve sensors that respond heat. Patapoutian, from Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla (California), discovered pressure-sensitive sensors within cells that respond to mechanical stimulation.
Thomas Perlmann (secretary-general of the committee), said that "this really unlocks one the secrets of nature" and announced the winners. It's actually a crucial step in our survival. So it's an important and profound discovery."
Their findings, according to the committee, reveal "one of humanity's great mysteries": How we perceive our environment.
Oscar Marin, director at King's College London's MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Diseases, stated that the selection of winners highlighted how little scientists knew before making the discoveries.
Marin stated that while we knew the physiology behind the senses, we did not understand how our bodies sense temperature and pressure differences. It is crucial to understand how the body perceives these changes because we can target them once we have those molecules. It's similar to finding the key that unlocks a lock.
Marin predicted that pain relief would be the first priority. However, scientists have discovered that the body can detect changes in pressure and could develop drugs to treat heart disease.
Richard Harris of the University of Michigan's Chronic Pain and Fatigue research center said that the work of the new laureates might help to design new pain medication designs, but acknowledged that the field is long stagnant.
According to him, because pain has a psychological component as well, it's not enough to just identify the triggers in the body. He said that the work of Patapoutian and Julius would help doctors to better treat pain caused by chemical burns and extreme temperatures.
He said, "Their discoveries give us the first inkling as to how this type pain begins, but it remains to be determined if it's involved with many chronic pain patients."
Fiona Boissonade from the University of Sheffield is a pain specialist who said that the Nobel laureates' work was particularly relevant to the 1 in 5 people worldwide suffering from chronic pain.
Julius claimed that he was alerted by a prank call just before the Nobel prize announcement, in keeping with a long history of problems alerting Nobel winners.
"My phone kind of bleeped and it was from someone who had been contacted on the Nobel Committee trying find my number," he stated from his San Francisco home, in the middle of the night.
His wife only heard Perlmann's voice, and confirmed that it was the secretary-general calling. Then Perlmann realized that it wasn't a joke. Julius claimed that Perlmann's wife had been with him for years.
Julius, now 65, stated that he hoped his research would lead to new pain medications. He explained that even daily activities have a lot of biology and can be very important.
He said, "We eat chili peppers, menthol, and oftentimes, we don't think about that how it works."
The Nobel Committee tweeted a picture of Patapoutian lying in bed with his son, while he viewed the announcement on his computer.
"A day to be grateful: This country gave me the opportunity with a great education, and support for basic research. Patapoutian, a Lebanese-born journalist, tweeted, "And for my labbies, collaborators, and for partnering with us."
The discovery was made in 2009 by the team. At a news conference, Patapoutian stated that it was something they had been looking for for many years.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute pays Patapoutian, who also supports The Associated Press Health and Science Department. Julius is a trustee of HHMI.
This prestigious award includes a gold medal, 10 million Swedish Kronor (more than $1.14 million) and a prestigious award. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor, left the prize money in a bequest. He died in 1895.
This is the first award this year. Other prizes include those for outstanding contributions in the areas of physics, chemistry and literature.