Stockholm – The Nobel season opened on Monday, with prize in physiology or medicine awarded jointly to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.”
The groundbreaking discoveries of the TRPV1, TRPM8 and Piezo channels by this year’s laureates “allowed us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can initiate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world around us,” the Nobel committee said on Twitter.
“In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s nobel Prize laureates.”
The announcement kicked off a week of awards that will be handed out against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, the award went to three virologists for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus. While the 2020 award was handed out as the pandemic raged, this is the first time the entire selection process has taken place under the shadow of COVID-19.
Two pioneers of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines and professors at the University of Pennsylvania, Hungary’s Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman of the United States, had stood out as early contenders for the prize. Their discoveries, published in 2005, paved the way for the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which have already been injected into more than a billion people worldwide.
But the various committees tasked with selecting winners for the science prizes are known for allowing years or even decades to pass so that a discovery’s true impact can be evaluated before the Nobel is bestowed.
While the 2020 award was handed out amid the pandemic, this is the first time the entire selection process has taken place under the shadow of COVID-19.
Nominations closed at the end of January, and at that time last year the novel coronavirus was still largely confined to China.
Over the last decade, a number of Japanese have been the recipients of the prestigious honor.
In 2018, Japanese immunologist Tasuku Honjo and American James Allison won the prize for figuring out how to release the immune system’s brakes to allow it to attack cancer cells more efficiently.
Two years prior to that, Yoshinori Ohsumi of Japan won for his work on autophagy — a process whereby cells “eat themselves” — which when disrupted can cause Parkinson’s and diabetes.
In 2015, Japan’s Satoshi Omura won the prize with William Campbell, a U.S. citizen born in Ireland, and Tu Youyou of China for unlocking treatments for malaria and roundworm.
And in 2012, Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka and Briton John B. Gurdon took home the honor for discoveries showing how adult cells can be transformed back into stem cells.
The Nobel season continues on Tuesday with the award for physics and Wednesday with chemistry, followed by the much-anticipated prizes for literature on Thursday and peace on Friday.
The economics prize winds up the season on Oct. 11.
This year’s Nobels come with a check for 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million).
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