American scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday for the discovery of receptors in the skin that sense temperature and touch and could pave the way for new painkillers.
Their work, carried out independently, has helped show how humans convert the physical impact from heat or touch into nerve impulses that allow us to "perceive and adapt to the world around us," the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said.
"This knowledge is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain."
Patapoutian, who was born in 1967 to Armenian parents in Lebanon and moved to Los Angeles in his youth, learned of the news from his father as he had been out of contact by phone.
"In science many times it is the things we take for granted that are of high interest," he said of winning the more than the century-old prize, which is worth 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.15 million).
He is credited for finding the cellular mechanism and the underlying gene that translates a mechanical force on our skin into an electrical nerve signal.
"(For) us being in the field of sense, touch and pain, this was the big elephant in the room where we knew they existed, we knew they did something very different," he said.
Patapoutian is a professor at Scripps Research, La Jolla, California, having previously done research at the University of California, San Francisco, and California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.
New York-born Julius, 65, is a Professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCFS), after earlier work at Columbia University, in New York.
His findings were inspired by his fascination for how natural products can be used to probe biological function and he used capsaicin, the molecule that makes chili peppers spicy by simulating a false sensation of heat, to understand the skin's sense of temperature.