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Scripps Scientist Shares $1 Million Prize For Discovery Of Cells Controlling Touch, Pain

 May 27, 2020 at 10:26 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Touch is such a basic function. Many of us probably don't wonder where does this come from? From the feeling of a hug to the sting of a bee, we take the sensory experience for granted. Well, it turns out a Scripps research scientist, dr Ardam Pat a podium, was in a girl to discovering what explains the sensation. And today he is being honored with the prestigious award, the 2020 Covley prize in neuroscience to recognize his contribution. The prize comes with a $1 million award and a gold medal. KPBS science and technology reporter Shalina chatline. He has more Speaker 2: 00:34 RDM. You've been honored for your work regarding the human sensory experience. You're able to identify genes in our DNA that give us that biological coding to well feel from touch, specifically temperature and pressure. Tell us a little bit more about your work and considering that most of us don't even think about touch. It's such a basic function. How did you even get into this line of work? Speaker 3: 00:59 It is true that we take touch for granted, but it is an amazing sense. Uh, the pleasure we get from a cool, gentle breeze. The joy we get from the embrace of a loved one or the shock, even pain of being pricked by a cactus. All of these depend on what we call touch, which is, is a way for our nervous system to recognize physical forces within our environment, such as temperature and pressure, as you mentioned. So how do we accomplish this? It's um, ourselves, our bodies are in a way experts at communicating with each other through chemicals. We all know about hormones, neurotransmitters or everything we taste or smell are all based on chemicals. Uh, but how do we sense these physical forces, right? Such as, uh, temperature and pressure. So David Julius, his lab, my lab, uh, and many others have identified these biological sensors, proteins that actually turn physical forces into chemical or electrical signals that the cells understand. Speaker 3: 02:03 So these studies are kind of like finding keys to a room that enables you to understand what goes on in these rooms. In our cases, we found that these keys enable a deeper understanding of touch and pain with actually some clinical implication for, for pain. Um, and one of the really coolest surprises for our studies has been that, uh, this key seemed to always also app open doors that we didn't even think about. What I mean by that is these pressure sensors that we found in addition to sensing, touch and pain are doing things like sensing blood pressure in our blood vessels and also very unanticipated roles such as they're in red blood cells, which then, uh, regulate how much these cells are squeezed while they go through capillaries and how this affects human health in again, very unanticipated. Speaker 2: 03:00 I think that's, that's so exciting that your research has led to discovery of these particular genes. And whenever I interview anyone who's worked with genetics, I always wonder what are the implications for people who are experiencing certain rare diseases? Speaker 3: 03:18 Absolutely. Um, I want to make this point in two very different ways. One is in a very general way, uh, it's wonderful to be asked what are the implications of this for human health? But I want to really emphasize the importance of doing basic science because many times we never anticipate what the basic findings in the laboratory, how they're going to translate to helping human health. A great example of this is CRISPR, where initially investigators were looking at this topic of, um, how does bacteria, uh, that are infected by viruses deal with it. This seems like has nothing to do with human health, but as one of the major biomedical discoveries of the last few years, that's really transforming not just basic research but pharmaceutical industry. So coming back to our work, um, fascinatingly, one of the aspects, one of the clinically important, uh, aspect of pain is something called tactile allodynia. Speaker 3: 04:23 It's a complicated name, but it's actually very simple. What it means is conditions in which touch becomes painful. The easiest example for this is after sunburn were just wearing a tee shirt or just touching your back will be painful, right? And so this is when innocuous touch stimulation becomes painful. So for us, some burns, something happens and it goes away in a few days, but many people who suffer from neuropathic chronic pain suffer from this every day. And there's actually no good treatments for this. As you may know from the opioid crisis in this country that there are actually no great medicines for lots of different pain indications and the work from our lab and others have shown this, this ion channels, this proteins that we've talking about in addition to being responsible for touch are actually responsible for this touch induced pain that occurs in people that suffer from neuropathic pain. And so we know now, uh, these are early days, but we know that if you suppress this ion channel in these patients, you would actually get some relief. So we're excited about pursuing this line of investigation as a direct clinical implication of the, of the work that we do. Speaker 2: 05:40 And I'm sure for the folks that are listening who may be experiencing neuropathic pain themselves or know someone who is experiencing that. This isn't a really a really exciting discovery from your lab. And I'm glad that you brought up the role of science for the sake of curiosity general, because right now we are an incredible time for the scientific community. The coronavirus pandemic has called upon scientists to fast track much of their work that would normally take them decades around the world. People obviously are searching for vaccines and antivirals, but there are computer sciences figuring out how to map transitions across the globe. Psychologists studying pandemics of psychological conditions that could happen after this outbreak. What is happening in the field of neuroscience right now. And how do you feel about this fast paced work that's happening in the scientific community? Speaker 3: 06:31 Yeah, it's a, um, yeah, obviously it's very, very interesting. Um, I'll, I'll talk about it from a general biomedical research point of view. How this is affecting scientists is, this might not apply to my laboratory, but for example, the Institute that I work in, Scripps research, it's been really fantastic to see, uh, scientists who can just roll up, roll up their sleeves and pivot in a way and start working on trying to understand this, uh, virus and how to cure it. And again, scripts is a great example of this where, uh, many different studies including, um, doing screens for new drugs to, um, use it for Corona virus. This is on drugs that we call repurposing, which means they already existed for, um, testing against other diseases. But now if we just find them that they also work on the coroner virus, this tenure that people say between discovery and medicine can really be cut short to much, much shorter time points. Speaker 3: 07:33 And again, there is a incredible effort in the scientific community to try to fight this virus. And again, this is wonderful because people are sharing their data. Um, and it's really a global effort as well. I also should say that there is, um, incredibly increased interest in science right now and I think we need to harness this. Um, just as an example again from my scripts research Institute example, we used to hold these front row public lectures that about, um, title to give a talk to the public and about 200 people at a time assembled to listen to the faculty with the shutdown shutdown, we transitioned to a webinar format. And, um, the last one I think had 1700 people listen in, uh, to these talks. And again, society is hungry to hear the science perspective of this. And I guess finally, I would also say beyond communicating current science findings, I think of it as that science should not just be for scientists. And the pandemic again, has, if anything, highlighted the importance of rational data driven decision making and importance of this for our society. So I think it's an opportunity to, um, for all of us, the public journalists, scientists to be engaged, to highlight science and, and, and help in some of the decisions that we have to take when confronted crises like this. Speaker 2: 09:10 I couldn't have said it better myself. Uh, well, we are so excited to see the work that continues to come out of your lab and congratulations on your prize. Speaker 3: 09:22 Thank you so much. Speaker 2: 09:23 Thanks so much for speaking to us. I've been speaking to dr [inaudible] of Scripps research.

On Wednesday, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters honored Scripps Research scientist, Ardem Patapoutian, with its 2020 Kavli Prize in neuroscience for his work, identifying proteins in the body that are key to our sense of touch.
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