Stockholm, 4 October 2021 (dpa/MIA) – Two molecular biologists, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, have won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on how heat, cold and mechanical force can initiate nerve impulses in the human body.
The two “identified critical missing links in our understanding of the complex interplay between our senses and the environment,” Sweden’s Karolinska Institute announced on Monday.
The knowledge gained through their discoveries is being used to develop treatments for a range of conditions, including chronic pain, the institute added.
Speculation had been rife that this year’s prize would recognize efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, notably those behind the development of the mRNA technology used in some of the leading vaccines.
US scientist Julius began his pioneering work using capsaicin, a pungent compound from chili peppers that induces a burning sensation. This led to the discovery of a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat.
Lebanon-born Patapoutian meanwhile used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a new class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli. The Beirut native moved to California in his teenage years, where he is now a scientist at Scripps Research in La Jolla.
Julius and Patapoutian had been hard to reach, the secretary of the institute’s Nobel committee, Thomas Perlmann, said during Monday’s announcement. When he finally managed to contact them by telephone, they were very pleased, he added.
Laureates in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature and peace are also due to be announced in the coming week, followed by economics next week.
With the exception of economics, the prizes were endowed by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel (1833-96), the inventor of dynamite.
This year, each prize is worth 10 million kronor (1.1 million dollars), an increase from the 9 million kronor in recent years.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was first awarded in 1901, when it went to German bacteriologist Emil Adolf von Behring for discovering a therapy against diphtheria. An overall 224 people have won it – including Julius and Patapoutian – of whom 12 were women.
Last year the award went to Harvey J Alter and Charles M Rice of the United States and Michael Houghton of Britain for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus.
The actual awards – comprising a medal and a diploma – are set to be presented on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel‘s death.
Due to the pandemic, however, organizers have already decided that none of the awardees will be physically present for the ceremony in Stockholm. There is still a chance the recipient of the economics award might be able to appear in person at that event, which is staged separately, in Oslo.