NIDCR Funded Winners of 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

David Julius, PhD
David Julius, PhD | Credit: University of California, San Francisco

On October 4, 2021, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awarded David Julius, PhD, and Ardem Patapoutian, PhD, the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Both scientists received NIDCR funding in support of their winning research.

Julius, a professor and chair of the Department of Physiology at UC San Francisco, and who also holds the Morris Herzstein Chair in Molecular Biology and Medicine, and Patapoutian, a professor of neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, won the world’s highest honor in science for “their discoveries of receptors of temperature and touch.”

“NIDCR extends a heartfelt congratulations to Drs. Julius and Patapoutian,” said Rena D’Souza, DDS, MS, PhD, director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). “We are proud to have supported the foundational work that led to these seminal discoveries.”

Ardem Patapoutian, PhD
Ardem Patapoutian, PhD | Credit: Scripps Research

Julius used capsaicin, the powerful component of chili peppers that causes a burning sensation, to recognize a sensor in the skin’s nerve endings that reacts to heat. Patapoutian, who served on NIDCR’s Board of Scientific Counselors in 2010, used pressure-sensitive cells to identify a new class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in internal organs and the skin. Both investigators, independent of each other, used menthol to discover an additional sensor that responds to cold, opening the door to new classes of thermal and mechanical receptors.

“Their discoveries exemplify why dental, oral, and craniofacial research is so vital to our ever-evolving understanding of the human body,” added D’Souza. “This research ultimately shed light on how our bodies sense the environment around us.”

D’Souza explained that the discovery of these ion channels provides a foundational basis for our understanding of pain and proprioception, and it offers new opportunities to identify therapeutic targets. NIDCR’s support for pain and mechanobiology research, for example, in temporomandibular joint disorders and mechanical loading in teeth and jaws, provides new insights into how our bodies process external stimuli.

Specifically, NIDCR, in addition to other NIH sources, funded Patapoutian’s work over a 15-year period, in support of his research on nociceptive ion channels and somatosensory receptors. The Institute funded Julius’ work over an eight-year period in support of his exploration of substances that mediate signaling in nociceptive pathways and the genetic analysis of nociceptor function.

Related link: NIH’s Nobel Winners Demonstrate Value of Basic Research

Last Reviewed
October 2021

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