Berkeley alumnus David Julius awarded 2021 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

mug of David Julius

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The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine 2021 was awarded Monday to David Julius, chair and professor of physiology at UCSF and a UC Berkeley alumnus.

This year, the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute awarded the prize jointly to Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, a research professor at Scripps, for their advancements in “discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch,” according to a Nobel Prize press release.

Julius completed his doctorate at UC Berkeley from 1977 to 1984, where he conducted research in biochemistry with Jeremy Thorner and Randy Schekman, according to a biography of Julius from the UCSF website. Schekman also received a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2013.

In an interview from the Nobel Prize website, Julius said being surrounded by passionate researchers such as Thorner and Schekman had a tremendous impact on him as a young scientist. When speaking about his early career, Julius stressed the importance of fostering curiosity.

According to a UC press release, following his time at UC Berkeley, Julius shifted his research focus to receptors, specifically about gaining a better understanding of how bodies have hot and cold sensations.

Julius and colleague Yifan Cheng, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF, were able to determine the structure of receptors TRPV1 and TRPA1, the biography added.

“I learn a lot from David about physiology, and working with him is really expanding my research,” Cheng said. “This kind of collaboration is the driving force behind asking deeper biological questions.”

The TRPV1 receptor responds to heat stimuli such as chili peppers and the TRPA1 receptor is informally known as the “wasabi receptor.” When Julius and Cheng used a new methodology known as electron microscopy to provide a clear model of these receptors, it served as a “wake up call for every structural biology lab in the country” to begin using this technology, Cheng said.

Cheng also noted the Nobel Committee’s announcement has been met with joy from colleagues from both Cheng and Julius’ labs, and added that Julius deserved the prize.

He added that Julius has also expressed his appreciation of scientific research being publicly funded, noting that private donations only make up a fraction of funding.

Julius’ research remains ongoing, and his discoveries are now being used to fuel the development of nonaddictive drugs that treat a wide range of diseases, including chronic pain. 

Contact Lydia Sidhom and Riya Chopra at [email protected].