COVID Vaccine Scientists Lose Out on Nobel Prize for Medicine to Heat and Touch Researchers

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded jointly to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their "discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch."

There had been some speculation prior to the announcement that scientists who were involved in the development of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines would be recognized by this years's award.

But in the end, the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet decided to give the award to Julius, an American at the University of California, San Francisco, and Patapoutian—a Lebanese researcher with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, California.

According to a tweet from the Nobel Prize account, the "seminal discoveries by this year's #NobelPrize laureates in physiology or medicine have explained how heat, cold and touch can initiate signals in our nervous system. The identified ion channels are important for many physiological processes and disease conditions."

Nominations for the Nobel Prizes are a closely guarded secret and are only made public 50 years after the nominations have taken place. So it is not known whether research relating to the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines was nominated for this year's prize.

At a press conference announcing the winners of the prize, a reporter from the Associated Press asked whether the Nobel committee had seen any research related to COVID-19 that would have been worthy of a Nobel Prize.

"That may be a relevant question but it's not really how we work," Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Assembly and the Nobel Committee, said in response. "We perform our work originating from nominations. So we're waiting for nominations, and always when we get a nomination that is new to us, we do a very thorough investigation."

"But I mean, of course, big breakthroughs in medicine, they usually reach us. I'm not able to say more than that in this particular case."

According to the Nobel Assembly, this year's laureates solved the question in their research of how nerve impulses are initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived.

"This really unlocks one of the secrets of nature in terms of being one of our senses and it explains at a molecular level how these stimuli can be converted into nerve signals, so that we can adapt," Perlmann said at the press conference.

"It's actually something that is crucial for our survival, so it's [a] very important and profound discovery."

Julius used capsaicin—a pungent compound found in chiles that induces a burning sensation—to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat.

Patapoutian, meanwhile, used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a novel class of sensors that responds to mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs.

"These breakthrough discoveries launched intense research activities leading to a rapid increase in our understanding of how our nervous system senses heat, cold, and mechanical stimuli," according to a statement from the Nobel Assembly.

"The laureates identified critical missing links in our understanding of the complex interplay between our senses and the environment."

Update 10/04/21, 8:03 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include more information about the Nobel Prize winners and their discoveries.

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A stock image showing mock vials of the COVID vaccine. There was speculation that scientists involved in the development of mRNA vaccines would be awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Getty Images