Patapoutien Ardem, a Lebanese immigrant who escaped civil war in his own country and became a master neuroscientist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, was chosen on Monday to share the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to help discover cell receptors that allow people to smell heat, cold, pain, touch and sound.
Patapoutian will share the gold medal and $ 1.14 million in cash prizes with his longtime collaborator, David Jules, physiologist at UC San Francisco.
The discovery, made in what Patapoutian called “an ignored part of biology,” is essential to human life, allowing a person to do it all, from feeling pain in the joints on a freezing cold day to instantly measuring pain. temperature of a new cup of coffee.
Or, as he said in a 2018 speech, “We rely on our five senses to make sense of our surroundings… Your sense of touch is amazing. You can feel an imprint about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.
Scientists say the discovery also sheds light on the nature of the human nervous system, which in turn could help in the treatment of many diseases, from chronic pain to heart conditions and eventually mental health.
Patapoutian, who lives in Del Mar, almost missed the call from the Nobel Committee.
“I had my iPhone muted so I could sleep like I do every night, so I missed a bunch of calls from Stockholm,” he told reporters on a Zoom call.
“They kind of got their hands on my 94-year-old dad, who lives in Los Angeles. Even if you have activated do not disturb, people in your favorites (group) can call you. So my dad called me and let me know, which ended up being a very special moment.
Patapoutian was moved by the announcement, say on twitter: “This country gave me a chance with a great education and support for basic research. And for my laboratories and collaborators for the partnership with me. So happy @NancyAhong captured this “touching” moment.
He was referring to a photograph taken showing him and his son Luca watching the Nobel Prize press conference on a laptop.
The Nobel committee said in a statement that the work of Patapoutian and Julius “unraveled one of nature’s secrets by explaining the molecular basis of the detection of heat, cold and mechanical force, which is fundamental for our ability to sense, interpret and interact with our internal and external environment.
The Academy added that prior to the breakthrough, “our understanding of how the nervous system senses and interprets our environment still contained a fundamental unresolved question: how temperature and mechanical stimuli are converted into electrical impulses in the body. the nervous system ?
Peter Schultz, CEO of Scripps, said: “The Nobel Prize is a wonderful recognition of these discoveries. I have followed Ardem’s career closely since joining Scripps Research and can say he is an amazing scientist, mentor and colleague and a wonderful person.
Research partners also won the 2020 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience to find out how our bodies feel the pressure, which is essential for our sense of touch and the functioning of cells in the heart and other organs.
The Nobel committee said it contacted the two men by phone early Monday and that Patapoutian, 54, and Julius, 65, were surprised and delighted to learn that they had won the highest science prize.
Patapoutian was born in Beirut, the youngest of three children to a family of Armenian origin. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father a writer and accountant.
He grew up during the Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975 and ultimately killed over 100,000 people. He was once captured by armed militants and then moved to Los Angeles, where he studied at UCLA and fell in love with molecular biology.
“I came here with very little money and barely spoke the language,” Patapoutian told the Union-Tribune in San Diego last year. “I worked in a lab and fell in love with research. Since then, this has been my life and my joy.
When asked to reflect on his childhood in Lebanon, Patapoutian said, “I certainly couldn’t have imagined this day. I couldn’t have imagined living a scientific life … I didn’t know it was a career.
He obtained a BSc in Biology from UCLA in 1990 and a PhD in Biology from Caltech in 1996. Patapoutian then became a postdoctoral researcher at UC San Francisco, where he worked until 2000, when he moved on to Scripps Research, one of the top ranked nonprofit biomedical research institutes in the country.
The Patapoutian team at Scripps began to tackle a question he first asked himself at UCSF: What makes our bodies feel pressure in all its forms? , from the prick of a needle to a full stomach after dinner?
Researchers had a better understanding of how sight and taste work, with electrical signals slashing the brain once light hits the back of the eye or after receptors in the nose or tongue detect chemicals of a meal. Touch, however, remained a mystery.
To untangle it, postdoctoral researcher Bernard Coste developed a cell line in Patapoutian’s lab that produced small zaps of electricity when stung. He then turned off the genes in those cells to find the ones that were essential for tactile response.
The painstaking work uncovered two genes, which the researchers named PIEZO1 and PIEZO2. They found that these genes were shared among mammals, including humans, and that the mutations were associated with a wide range of diseases, including cardiomyopathy, a disorder in which weakened heart muscles have difficulty pumping blood through. the whole body, and in degenerative diseases of the spine.
Understanding the cellular function behind these diseases is a key first step in developing new treatments against them. And Patapoutian is already working with Calibr, the drug development arm of Scripps Research, to rapidly screen thousands of small molecules for their ability to control PIEZO1 or PIEZO2.
Julius discovered the heat-detecting TRPV1 receptor through lab experiments that tested how cells respond to capsaicin, the same molecule found in chili peppers. Julius later discovered that this receptor was also activated by high temperatures, inflammation, and low oxygen conditions, such as during a stroke.
“One of the beautiful things about basic science is that it takes you in directions you never anticipate,” Patapoutian said on Monday morning’s Zoom call with reporters. “We still have a long way to go to determine the indications for which this could be useful as well as the actual treatments that we could develop. “
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