Neuroscientist Ardem Patapoutian, a UCLA alumnus, is one of two winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
Patapoutian, a professor of neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, shares the honor with David Julius, a UC San Francisco professor of physiology, for their discoveries of receptors in the body that respond to temperature and touch. Specifically, their research explains how temperature and pressure are converted into electrical impulses in the nervous system.
“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,” the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet said in its announcement.
The Nobel committee said the pair’s findings are “being used to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain.”
Patapoutian, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1967, came to the United States in 1986 and earned his bachelor’s degree in molecular, cell and developmental biology at UCLA in 1990. His adviser was the late Judith Lengyel, herself a UCLA alumna, who was a professor at UCLA from 1976 to 2004.
It was as a UCLA undergraduate that Patapoutian began working in a research laboratory.
“I fell in love with doing basic research. That changed the trajectory of my career,” he told The New York Times in an interview. “In Lebanon, I didn’t even know about scientists as a career.”
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said: “The Nobel Prize is a monumental and well-deserved recognition of Ardem Patapoutian’s research into how humans perceive and adapt to their environments. Professor Patapoutian’s story also vividly illustrates how a UCLA education helps prepare our students to change the world. The entire Bruin community can take pride in his achievement.”
In 2020, Patapoutian and Julius shared the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, which is presented by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Watch a 2020 World Science Festival video about their work here.
The Nobel committee said in its announcement that their findings are “being used to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain.”
The prize for physiology or medicine, which was first presented in 1901, is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and is worth 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.14 million).
In addition to the eight UCLA graduates who have won Nobel Prizes, eight UCLA faculty members have been named Nobel laureates: Willard Libby (chemistry, 1960), Julian Schwinger (physics, 1965), Donald Cram (chemistry, 1987), Paul Boyer (chemistry, 1997), Louis Ignarro (physiology or medicine, 1998), Lloyd Shapley (economics, 2012), J. Fraser Stoddart (chemistry, 2016) and Andrea Ghez (physics, 2020). Stoddart was a Northwestern University faculty member when he received the honor, but much of the work for which he was recognized was conducted at UCLA from 1997 to 2008.