California scientists share Nobel for work on sense of touch

Patrik Ernfors, right,, member of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, explains the research field of the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, during a press conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday. U.S. scientists David Julius, on the screen left, and Ardem Patapoutian won the Nobel Medicine Prize for discoveries on receptors for temperature and touch. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images/TNS

Two California scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine for work on how the human body senses temperature through touch, which may have applications from pain management to virtual reality.

David Julius, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular biologist and neuroscientist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., will share the $1.1 million award.

The scientists identified critical missing links that help understand the interplay between our senses and the environment, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The knowledge is being used to develop treatments for a range of health conditions including chronic pain. It could also help make virtual reality into a tactile experience.

Julius used a compound from chili peppers that induces a burning sensation to identify a sensor in the skin’s nerve endings that responds to heat. Patapoutian used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a new class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs.

“This really unlocks one of the secrets of nature,” said Thomas Perlmann, the Secretary-General for the Nobel Assembly. “It’s a very important and profound discovery.”

Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. A prize in economic sciences was added by Sweden’s central bank in 1968.

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