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‘Pure joy’: La Jolla researcher details his Nobel Prize-winning scientific discovery

Scripps Research neuroscientist Ardem Patapoutian details his Nobel-winning discovery in a lecture at The Bishop's School.
Scripps Research neuroscientist Ardem Patapoutian details his Nobel Prize-winning discovery during a lecture Nov. 3 at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla. It was Patapoutian’s first public speaking event since learning of the prize Oct. 4.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

“The discovery process is just pure joy,” said Ardem Patapoutian, a neuroscientist at Scripps Research in La Jolla who last month won the 2021 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology for discovering skin receptors that enable people to sense heat, cold, pain, touch and sound.

Patapoutian, who shared the prize — a gold medal and $1.14 million award — with his research partner, UC San Francisco physiologist David Julius, spoke about his work to 250 members of The Bishop’s School community as part of the La Jolla campus’s annual Shaffer Family Foundation Endowed Science Lecture Series on Nov. 3.

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

The sold-out lecture — which drew Bishop’s largest crowd for the Shaffer lecture series — was Patapoutian’s first time speaking publicly since being awarded the Nobel and his first in-person public speaking event in two years.

In an introduction, Patapoutian’s son Luca, a Bishop’s senior, said the past month in the Patapoutian household has been “surreal” with the uptick in publicity. “The Nobel itself isn’t the achievement,” Luca said. For his father, “the goal was and always will ... be to do great science.”

Patapoutian, whose lab studies sensory biology, said his discovery came from wanting to study the mechanisms through which the sensation of touch and its mechanical, thermal and chemical signals are translated to the brain, an area he said is not yet well-understood.

“Our reality is represented by our sensory system,” he said.

Touch includes the ability to sense temperature, pain and proprioception, “a sensory mechanism that you have that senses muscle stretch,” or how we perceive where our muscles are in space.

Proprioception, Patapoutian said, is “absolutely required for you to be able to sit, stand and perform complex tasks, like playing a musical instrument, without looking at your hands.”

The sense of touch is initiated in a group of neurons that contain “sensory receptors” at their ends, which “have to somehow sense this physical stimuli and transfer it into electrical or chemical signals that the neuron understands,” he said.

Ardem Patapoutian says how the body translates temperature and mechanical force into chemical signals is "very exciting."
Ardem Patapoutian says that how the body translates temperature and mechanical force into chemical signals is “very exciting.”
(Elisabeth Frausto)

“How you translate temperature and mechanical force into chemical signals is something that I think is very exciting,” he added.

Through research focused on pressure sensors, Patapoutian and his team slowly narrowed in on the gene function that opened the channels.

The team named the identified gene function “piezo” (derived from the Greek word for pressure). There are two piezos in mammal species, he said.

Patapoutian said he and his collaborators conducted several experiments to prove Piezo1 and Piezo2 are the touch sensors, finding that mice missing Piezo2 could not discern a piece of tape affixed to their back and that humans deficient in Piezo2 lack proprioception and cannot sense touch, often experiencing delays or inabilities in walking or moving with coordination.

Humans deficient in Piezo2 also lack tactile allodynia, he said, which is a “painful sensation caused by an innocuous stimuli” such as wearing a shirt on a sunburn, and somatic sensation, such as the ability to detect when the bladder is full.

“One of the coolest things for me to witness,” Patapoutian said, “is that without any further work, this already has helped with patients [who are] misdiagnosed” with muscle problems or other disorders.

“Once you know that proprioception is the problem, there’s actually immediate help. … Your visual system can compensate,” with other implications for the treatment of chronic pain and concerns with internal organ sensing in hypertension, asthma and other conditions.

Patapoutian said “basic science research labs are nurseries for future medicine,” and he encouraged Bishop’s students to “be open to the discovery process.”

He said he got into science “in a funny way,” working in a lab at UCLA while in pre-med to try to get to know his professors better. “I fell in love with discovery science,” he said. He also loved the internationalism and culture in the laboratory community.

“I found my tribe,” said Patapoutian, who is Armenian and was born in Lebanon before moving to the United States at age 18. “I hope that you do as well.” ◆