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David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian win 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine

04.10.2021

The molecular biologists have won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch, the Nobel Committee has announced in Stockholm.

David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian have been awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The Nobel Committee's Thomas Perlmann said Julius and Patapoutian had "unlocked one of the secrets of nature," and that is how we sense and feel our way around in the world. Our sense of touch, how we sense depth, reach out for things, and also how we experience pain.

In a year when many may have expected the prize to go to at least one of the makers of a COVID-19 vaccine, Perlmann said this was deemed the most important discovery in Physiology or Medicine in 2021. He said he couldn't say more without "breaking confidentiality." 

This is basic research, which the committee says will have benefits for future drug development.  

As for the developments in coronavirus research over the past year and a half, the committee would only say that it worked on the basis of discoveries that had been nominated. 

They wouldn't say whether drug and vaccine discoveries against SARS-CoV-2 had been nominated.  

Julius and Patapoutian's work will be used in future drug developments

Red hot chili receptors 

We move about in the world as though it were second nature — and, indeed, it is.  

But until this novel research into proprioception, the Nobel Committee says we had yet to work out how temperature and mechanical stimuli get converted into electrical impulses in the human nervous system.  

That is how we sense and perceive temperature, and even pain, and why those senses and perceptions are different for many people.  

Some of us feel the cold more than others. Some of us can walk over burning coals, and others simply can't stand the heat.   

And it's the way that the nervous system interprets those electrical impulses that determines how we react and feel. 

Perhaps that's why David Julius landed on capsaicin as a basis for his research. 

Capsaicin is a chemical found in chili peppers. It's what makes chilis burn the nerve endings on our tongues or our eyes if we touch them after cutting up a chili. 

Julius used that chemical irritant and the burning sensation it creates "to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat."  

His work led to the discovery of TRPV1, an ion channel that is activated by painful heat. Ion channels are proteins that allow ions, such as sodium, potassium, calcium, to pass through the cell membrane. They are vital for the nervous system, the contraction of the heart and skeletal muscle and other physiological functions. 

And this particular one allows us to understand pain just a little bit better.  

Have you hugged today?
National Hugging Day goes global

Celebrated on January 21, World Hugging Day is an offshoot of National Hugging Day, which has been embraced in countries across the world including Canada, Russia and Germany. It originated in Michigan in 1986 — the brainchild of US Americans Adam Olis and Kevin Zaborney, the latter wanting to encourage people to cuddle because "American society is embarrassed to show feelings in public."

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Love of others

Hugging and expressing feelings in general is said to improve general well-being. World Hugging Day is intended as an incentive to more often show family and friends what they mean to you.

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Not objects, silly!

But the US President Donald Trump seems to have misunderstood something here: It's clearly a matter of showing affection to your fellow human beings, not objects. World Hugging Day is about embracing people, not patriotism.

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Hugging for heath

On the occasion of World Hugging Day in 2013, the Center for Brain Research at the Medical University of Vienna confirmed that hugging, cuddling and kissing are healthy habits that can help to reduce stress and anxiety. Cuddling also lowers blood pressure and boosts the immune system.

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The affection hormone

The hormone oxytocin is responsible for our feelings of happiness when cuddling. This "cuddling hormone" is produced in the pituitary gland and is produced, for example, in mothers during childbirth and breastfeeding. It thus strengthens the bond between mother and child. But men's bodies also produce the hormone.

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Free hugs!

Though cuddling is a proven means to reduce stress, caution is advised if it's one-sided. When the feeling isn't mutual, the stress hormone cortisol can be released, giving the hugee a feeling of unease. So any hug needs to be well-considered — and, if in doubt, simply ask for permission.

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Animal love

Cuddling is a very emotional affair, also in the animal world. Just like humans, animals express their mutual affection with kisses and cuddles. And here also, intimacy requires trust.

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An historic kiss

Did then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (left) ask Erich Honecker, Chairman of the State Council of the GDR, for permission for this iconic big kiss on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall? Were stress hormones flowing in Honecker's body? One will never know. What is certain is that the image of this historic embrace will not be forgotten.

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Hugging as political currency

Gorbachev and Honecker were not the first, nor the last, world leaders to enjoy a hug. Nearly 30 years later in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued a cuddly traditional of international diplomacy and detente.

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Affection in art

Love and affection are important in every culture in the world. No wonder then that these feelings also find expression in art, such as here in Auguste Rodin's famous sculpture "Le baiser" ("The Kiss"). International Kissing Day is also a thing and is celebrated on July 6. It was established in Great Britain in the early 1990s, which makes World Hugging Day a slightly older tradition.

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And novel receptors 

Ardem Patapoutian, meanwhile, used "pressure-sensitive cells to discover a novel class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs," the committee writes. 

What did Patapoutian's team do? They switched 72 individual genes in a cell off and on, one by one, and poked that cell with a small pipette (a micropipette) to observe how the genes within the cell reacted.

They first found a gene that appeared to be responsible for pain, because when they "silenced" that gene, the cell was "rendered insensitive" when the researchers poked it.

Then they found a second, similar gene.

The two genes were named Piezo1 and Piezo2. "Further studies firmly established that Piezo1 and Piezo2 are ion channels that are directly activated" when pressure is exerted on cell membranes, writes the Nobel Committee.

Their work together 

It's now said that TRP and Piezo channels influence a range of physiological functions that depend on how we sense temperature or "mechanical stimuli" — that could be the prick of a vaccine needle — and how we adapt to those sensations. 

Placed together, the discoveries have been influential for our understanding about core body temperature, inflammatory pain, protective reflexes, respiration, blood pressure, and urination. 

"This knowledge," says the Nobel Committee, "is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain."     

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Who are the winners? 

David Julius is a biochemist and professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2020, Julius was awarded the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience for this same body of research. It was cited as having created new approaches for the development of safe and targeted painkillers that may have lower addictive properties than opioids

Ardem Patapoutian, a professor of neuroscience at Scripps Research, an institute in California in the US, shared that 2020 Kavli Prize with Julius. It wasn't the first time: In 2019, they shared the Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research. And now they share a Nobel Prize.  

Prize-heavy week

Medicine is always the first in a week of Nobel Prizes. Tuesday is traditionally the day for the Physics prize and Wednesday it's Chemistry. 

Later in the week, there will be Nobel Prizes for Literature and Peace, and then Economic Sciences.

Pomp and ceremony in December

In 2020, the Medicine prize was won by Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton und Charles M. Rice for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.

The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded 111 since the prize's first year in 1901. It's gone to 222 scientists, including two married couples, but only 12 women. 

This year's winners receive cash prize of 10 million Swedish Krona (about €980,000), a Nobel Medal and a range of other trinkets.

But they will have to wait until December 10, because tradition also has it that the prizes is handed out at a gala dinner in Stockholm.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2021: Abdulrazak Gurnah

Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021 "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism," said the Swedish Academy, who gives out the prize. "His novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world."

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2020: Louise Glück

Crowned with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2020, the American poet and essayist had already won major awards in the US, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, as well as the National Humanities Medal, which was presented by Barack Obama in 2016. Her most notable works include the "The Triumph of Achilles" (1985) and "The Wild Iris" (1992).

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2019: Peter Handke

The Austrian author born in 1942 became famous with experimental plays such as "Offending the Audience" in 1966. He also co-wrote with Wim Wenders films including "Wings of Desire." The decision to award Handke the Nobel Prize was criticized since he is also known for his controversial positions on the Yugoslav Wars. In 2014, he had also called the prize to be abolished, dubbing it a "circus."

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2018: Olga Tokarczuk

The Polish writer was actually awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in 2019, since it had been postponed for a year following scandals affecting the Swedish Academy, the body that chooses the laureates for the award. A two-time winner of Poland's top literary prize, the Nike Award, Tokarczuk was also honored in 2010 with the Man Booker International Prize for her novel "Flights."

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2017: Kazuo Ishiguro

Japan-born British novelist, screenwriter and short story writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 award. His most renowned novel, "The Remains of the Day" (1989), was adapted into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins. His works deal with memory, time and self-delusion.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2016: Bob Dylan

An atypical but world famous laureate: US songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. The Swedish Academy selected him "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2015: Svetlana Alexievich

Calling her work "a monument to suffering and courage in our time," the Swedish Academy honored the Belarusian author and investigative journalist in 2015 — making her only the 14th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901. Alexievich is best known for her emotive firsthand accounts of war and suffering, including "War's Unwomanly Face" (1985) and "Voices from Chernobyl" (2005).

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2014: Patrick Modiano

The French writer's stories describe a universe of haunted cities, absentee parents, criminality and lost youths. They are all set in Paris with the shadow of the Second World War looming heavily in the background. The Swedish Academy described the novelist, whose work has often focused on the Nazi occupation of France, as "a Marcel Proust of our time."

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2013: Alice Munro

Canadian writer Alice Munro is no stranger to accolades, having received the Man Booker International Prize and the Canadian Governor General Literary Award three times over. The Swedish Academy, which awards the annual Nobel Prize in Literature, called her a "master of the contemporary short story."

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2012: Mo Yan

Guan Moye, better known under his pen name Mo Yan, was praised by the Swedish Academy as a writer "who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary." The decision was criticized by Chinese dissidents like artist Ai Weiwei, who claimed Mo Yan was too close to the Chinese Communist Party and did not support fellow intellectuals who faced political repression.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2011: Tomas Transtromer

The Academy chose Tomas Gosta Transtromer as the winner in 2011 "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality." In the 1960s, the Swedish poet worked as a psychologist at a center for juvenile offenders. His poetry has been translated into over 60 languages.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2010: Mario Vargas Llosa

The Peruvian novelist received the Nobel Prize "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat." In Latin America, he is famous for uttering the phrase "Mexico is the perfect dictatorship" on TV in 1990 and for punching his once-friend and fellow Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in the face in 1976.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2009: Herta Müller

The German-Romanian author was awarded the Nobel Prize as a writer "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed." She is noted for her work criticizing the repressive communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, which she experienced herself. Müller writes in German and moved to West Berlin in 1987.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2008: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio

The Swedish Academy called J.M.G. Le Clezio an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization." Le Clezio was born in Nice, France, in 1940 to a French mother and a Mauritian father. He holds dual citizenship and calls Mauritius his "little fatherland."

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2007: Doris Lessing

British author Doris May Lessing has written novels, plays and short stories, to name just a few of her mediums. The 93-year-old received the Nobel Prize for being a writer "who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny." She campaigned against nuclear weapons and the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2006: Orhan Pamuk

Ferit Orhan Pamuk, "who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures," was the first Turkish author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. With more than 11 million books sold, he is Turkey's bestselling writer. Pamuk was born in Istanbul and currently teaches at Columbia University in New York City.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2005: Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter, "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms," was awarded the Nobel Prize three years before his death from liver cancer. He died on Christmas Eve in 2008. The British playwright directed and acted in many radio and film productions of his own work. In total, he received more than 50 awards.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2004: Elfriede Jelinek

The Nobel Prize was awarded to Elfriede Jelinek "for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels" and for her plays that reveal society's clichés. A central theme in Jelinek's work is female sexuality. Her novel "The Piano Teacher" was the basis for the 2001 movie of the same name featuring Isabelle Huppert in the lead role.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2003: John Maxwell Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee, "who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider," was also awarded the Booker Prize twice before obtaining the Nobel Prize. The Cape Town-born author became an Australian citizen in 2006. One of his best-known novels, "Disgrace" (1999), is set in post-apartheid South Africa.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2002: Imre Kertesz

The Jewish Hungarian Auschwitz survivor became Nobel laureate "for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history." Kertesz, who died in March 2016, described the atrocities of concentration camps in his books. He worked over 13 years on his semi-autobiographical novel "Fatelessness," which was first published in 1975.

Nobel Literature Prize winners since 2001
2001: Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul received the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his strong storytelling and "for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories." Born in Trinidad and Tobago, the British writer has often explored the freedom of the individual in a declining society in his novels.

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