Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine for their research on how the human body perceives temperature and touch.
As reported in the New York Times, “Dr. (David) Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, used a key ingredient in hot chili peppers to identify a protein on nerve cells that responds to uncomfortably hot temperatures. Dr. (Ardem) Patapoutian, a molecular biologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, led a team that, by poking individual cells with a tiny pipette, hit upon a receptor that responds to pressure, touch and the positioning of body parts.”
The identification of pain receptors caused an initial uptick of interest from pharmaceutical companies, but related treatments based on these findings have run into major obstacles, and the interest from drug makers has significantly waned. One major issue is that some sensitivity to pain is useful—without it, people run the risk of not receiving signals when something is too hot to touch. Another obstacle is that humans are equipped with multiple heat-sensing channels, and blocking one causes those other channels to compensate. The channels identified in the Nobel Prize winners’ work are involved in multiple processes, which makes it difficult to isolate the receptors as targets for non-opioid painkillers.