Explained: Nobel Prize in Medicine 2021

Context: Two scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the Nobel Prize in medicine 2021 on Monday for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.  

About the discovery  

Nobel prize in the medicine has been awarded for the discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.  

Artificial sensors like thermometer are very common temperature sensors that can perceive changes in temperature. Similarly, in the human body, there are sensors to sense. However, only very specific proteins molecules relay these signals to the nervous system. These sensors were not identified yet. 

Now scientists have discovered the molecular sensors in the human body that are sensitive to heat, and to mechanical pressure, and make us “feel” hot or cold, or the touch of a sharp object on our skin. 

Mechanism of receptors  

Artificial detectors like a smoke detector send an alarm when it senses smoke beyond a certain threshold. 

Similarly, when something hot or cold touches a body, heat receptors open up a passage for specific chemicals, like calcium ions, through the membrane of nerve cells. The chemical inside the cell causes a small change in electrical voltage, which is picked up by the nervous system. It enables the brain to perceive high temperatures.  

These detectors can also detect temperature or pressure changes inside the body. For example, when our urinary bladder is full, the pressure in the bladder increases. This change in pressure is sensed by the pressure receptors and relayed to the nervous system which creates this urge to relieve oneself. 

Significance of discovery 

Discoveries opened up “an entire field of pharmacology”. The identification of these receptors opens up the possibility of regulating their functioning. Researchers are already working to develop drugs to target the receptors they identified. 

For example, there are receptors that make us feel pain, if these receptors can be suppressed or made less effective, the person would feel less pain. 

Read – About Nobel Prizes 

Source: This post is based on the article “Nobel Prize in Medicine 2021 published in epaper.livemint.com & indianexpress on 5th Oct 2021. 

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