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Professor David Julius who discovered the TRP channel received the 2021 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine!
Did you know that the 2021 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to TRP channel research? The longtime mystery of the body’s mechanism of sensing thermal stimuli and pain has now been solved. How will this discovery change our lives now and in the future?
How do we perceive the world?

We feel heat, pain, and touch by using cell sensors, such as TRP and Piezo channels. These sensors were discovered by Professor David Julius and Professor Ardem Patapoutian, the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.*1

illustration: Toshiyuki Hirata

Professor David Julius was seeking to explain why chili burns our mouth. He discovered that the TRPV1 channel is activated by pungency and heat over 43℃ and sends its receptor in the brain a message of pain. The TRP channel makes us feel thermal sensation and pain.

illustration: Toshiyuki Hirata

Following this discovery, several different TRP channels have been proved to be associated with our thermal sensation caused by the presence of both hot and cold stimuli. TRPM8, which is responsible for cold stimuli, is also activated by menthol, a substance found in mint, and makes us feel cool when we eat it.

illustration: Toshiyuki Hirata

If our body did not have the TRP channel, we could walk in the Antarctic in bare feet without feeling cold and then be frostbitten. We could bathe in boiling hot water and be burnt. Without the temperature-sensitive TRP channel, we would always be exposed to danger.

illustration: Toshiyuki Hirata

The discovery of these cell sensors different from our five senses has not only solved the longtime mystery of the body’s mechanism of sensing various stimuli including temperature and pain, but also is expected to make a breakthrough in our research into diseases and development of new drugs.

Connection with pain or conformity!? TRP channel is deeply associated with our lives

Why chili burns our mouth when we eat it?

The TRP channel was discovered in 1997. Surprisingly, it was not long ago. Before then, we did not know how we sense thermal stimuli and pain. The research into this body mechanism that matters for life and death has long been nominated for the Nobel Prize since its discovery. Professor Makoto Tominaga, who was working under the instructions of Professor David Julius and now is affiliated with National Institute for Physiological Sciences,*2 commented about this award, “I am really happy to hear the news. It’s finally the day I have been waiting for.”

“Why chili burns our mouth when we eat it?” The research started with this question. We knew that we feel pain when exposed to heat over 43℃. However, we did not know why we feel so. Both capsaicin, a compound found in chili, and noxious heat over 43℃ activate TRPV1 of cell sensors and make us feel pain.

TRP channel gives a hint about relieving pain and enhancing conformity

Since its discovery, research has progressed in the TRP channel of animals in addition to human beings, until it was proved to be activated not only by thermal stimuli but also by various compounds, including mint, wasabi, eucalyptus, and acids, to make us feel hot or cold and to cause or relieve pain.

“Certain compounds activate the TRP channel, potentially relieving pain and enhancing conformity. We may be able to develop pain medicines without side effects or cosmetics that do not sting the eyes and scalp. This discovery can be applied to various fields,” said Professor Tominaga. The TRP channel will suggest ideas of living more safely and comfortably even with the impact of changing environmental conditions.

*1 The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2021 was awarded jointly to Professor David Julius at the University of California and Professor Ardem Patapoutian at Scripps Research for their “discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.”
*2 Division of Cell Signaling, National Institute for Physiological Sciences (NIPS)