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Scripps Research scientist wins Nobel Prize in medicine

Ardem Patapoutian
Ardem Patapoutian of Scripps Research was one of two researchers to win the 2021 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for helping to discover cell receptors that enable people to sense heat, cold, pain, touch and sound.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ardem Patapoutian and his research partner, physiologist David Julius, identified temperature and touch receptors.

Del Mar resident Ardem Patapoutian, a neuroscientist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, was chosen Oct. 4 to share the 2021 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering skin receptors that enable people to sense heat, cold, pain, touch and sound.

Patapoutian will share the gold medal and $1.14 million in prize money with his long-term collaborator, David Julius, a physiologist at UC San Francisco.

Scientists say the discovery sheds light on the nature of the human nervous system, which could help with the treatment of maladies ranging from chronic pain to heart and possibly mental health disorders.

“Their discoveries have unlocked one of the secrets of nature by explaining the molecular basis for sensing heat, cold and mechanical force, which is fundamental for our ability to feel, interpret and interact with our internal and external environment,” according to the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

The academy’s statement added that before the two researchers’ breakthrough, “our understanding of how the nervous system senses and interprets our environment still contained a fundamental unsolved question: How are temperature and mechanical stimuli converted into electrical impulses in the nervous system?”

Patapoutian, 53, said he nearly missed the call from the Nobel committee.

“I had my iPhone on mute so I could sleep, as I do every night, so I missed a bunch of calls from Stockholm,” he told reporters during a Zoom call.

“They somehow got hold of my 94-year-old father, who lives in Los Angeles. Even if you have ‘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.”

Scripps Research Chief Executive Peter Schultz said: “The Nobel Prize is wonderful recognition of these discoveries. I have followed Ardem’s career closely since he first came to Scripps Research and can say that he is an extraordinary scientist, mentor and colleague and a wonderful person.”

It’s been a long journey for Patapoutian, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, as the youngest of three children. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father a writer and an accountant.

Patapoutian grew up during the Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975 and ultimately killed more than 100,000 people. He once was captured by armed militants, and afterward moved to Los Angeles, where he studied at UCLA and fell in love with molecular biology.

“I came here with very little money and hardly spoke the language,” Patapoutian said in an interview last year. “I worked in a lab and just fell in love with doing research. Ever since then, this has been my life and joy.”

Patapoutian earned a bachelor of science degree in biology at UCLA in 1990 and a doctor of philosophy in biology at Caltech in 1996. He then became a postdoctoral fellow at at UC San Francisco, where he worked until 2000, when he moved on to Scripps Research, one of the nation’s highest-ranked nonprofit biomedical research institutes.

Patapoutian was moved by the Nobel announcement, stating on Twitter: “This country gave me a chance with a great education and support for basic research. And for my labbies and collaborators for partnering with me. So glad @NancyAHong captured this ‘touching’ moment.”

He was referring to a photograph showing him and his son Luca watching the Nobel Prize news conference on a laptop.

Patapoutian ordinarily would get to celebrate the prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, followed by a banquet in the hall used to honor Nobel winners. Due to COVID-19, in-person festivities will be delayed until September 2022, when the next Kavli Prizes are awarded.

Those prizes have been awarded every two years since 2008 and are named after physicist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Fred Kavli. The Kavli Foundation, based in Los Angeles, has an endowed neuroscience institute at UC San Diego.

Patapoutian and Julius won the 2020 Kavli Prize in neuroscience for discovering how our bodies sense pressure, which is essential to our sense of touch and the function of cells in the heart and other organs.

Nobel Prize medal
The Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to Ardem Patapoutian, a neuroscientist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, and his research partner, physiologist David Julius at UC San Francisco.
(File / Associated Press)

The Nobel announcement came 10 years after another Scripps Research scientist, Bruce Beutler, won the prize in medicine for his insights about how the immune system quickly spots enemies and sometimes turns on itself.

In 2001, Scripps researcher Barry Sharpless won a Nobel in chemistry for his work on catalysts, which are essential in drug development. Some scientists thought he would win a second Nobel this week for finding ways to more efficiently develop molecules, which are important in drug development.

Updates

4:39 a.m. Oct. 5, 2021: This article was updated with comments from Ardem Patapoutian.


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