David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian were honored for their discoveries about how heat, cold and touch can initiate signals in the nervous system.
Dr. Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, used a key ingredient in hot chili peppers to identify a protein in nerve cells that responds to uncomfortably hot temperatures.
Dr. Patapoutian, a molecular biologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., led a team that, by poking individual cells with a tiny pipette, hit upon a receptor that responds to pressure, touch and the positioning of body parts.
After Dr. Julius’s pivotal discovery of a heat-sensing protein in 1997, pharmaceutical companies poured billions of dollars into looking for nonopioid drugs that could dull pain by targeting the receptors. But while research is ongoing, the related treatments have so far run into huge obstacles, scientists said, and interest from drug makers has largely dried up.
The channel integral to the sense of touch became known as Piezo1, after the Greek word for pressure. That channel and a similar one, both described in a 2010 paper, are now known to regulate a number of bodily functions that involve stretching, said Dr. Walter Koroshetz, the director of the N.I.H. National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which provided funding to Dr. Julius’s and Dr. Patapoutian’s labs. Those functions include the working of blood vessels, breathing and sensitivity to a full bladder.
The identification of pain receptors prompted a flurry of interest from pharmaceutical companies: If you could block the channel identified by Dr. Julius, they reasoned, you could address chronic pain.
Another is that the same channels responsive to heat also turned out to contribute to the control of body temperature. Blocking them was found to cause a slight fever — a potentially major liability.