THE SCIENCE OF SENSATION: AN EXCHANGE WITH DR. ARDEM PATAPOUTIAN, 2021 NOBEL LAUREATE IN PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE
We sat down with this year’s Nobel Laureate for Physiology or Medicine, Dr. Ardem Patapoutian, to learn about his fascinating prize-winning breakthrough and how he faced challenges on the road to success.
Radyus is delighted and honored to share insights from interviewing Dr. Ardem Patapoutian, who won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine together with Dr. David Julius, for their ground-breaking discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.
Dr. Patapoutian is a professor of neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He’s now a science rock star. A success story. But his path to success was not easy. As it never is. It required a lot of sacrifice, humble pivoting, and good old patience.
Dr. Patapoutian was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and moved to California as a young adult. He completed his Ph.D. studying the transcriptional control of muscle development at Caltech in the laboratory of Dr. Barbara Wold. Subsequently, as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Louis Reichardt at UCSF, he analyzed Wnt and Trk signaling in neural development and physiology. When he moved to Scripps Research Institute and started his research program, he became interested in the perception of temperature and pain.
After years of studying temperature signaling (both Patapoutian and Julius independently discovered the cold-sensitive ion channel TRPM8), Dr. Patapoutian turned his attention to the sensation of touch. It was a graveyard, and Patapoutian was up for a challenge!
He and his team went about it meticulously, laser-focused on identifying the key regulator of mechanical force signaling on the cell surface. This research effort was comprehensive and systematic, requiring tremendous patience. Finally, they had narrowed it down to 300 candidates. They tested each of these, one by one. And had found no promising results after almost one year of studying the first 71 genes. Imagine the frustration and pressure! They were starting to lose hope and began questioning the approach.
And then, extraordinarily, on testing gene 72, they discovered it did respond to touch! Imagine the sense of relief and validation of the initial approach. Their assumptions were correct, after all!
This mechanosensitive gene is now known as Piezo1 (from the Greek word for pressure). Soon after this, followed the discovery of Piezo2, another mechanosensitive gene, with a critical role in sensing body position and movement. And it seems like Dr. Patapoutian is not stopping there. He continues his work, diligently, patiently, without any intention of slowing down but now, with a little boost from the committee in Stockholm, perhaps with a slightly greater sense of excitement.
Congratulations again on winning the Nobel prize! How long was your road to success, and were you at any point discouraged or doubted that you were on the right path?
Depending on where we start counting the journey, I have been a professor for 21 years and cloned the Piezos in 2010. During my postdoc, I had a period of doubt about the academic route and explored very briefly the consulting path, without really knowing what it meant except they were recruiting PhDs. I also interviewed for both academic and pharma positions and ended up taking a very unique 50/50 role at Scripps/Novartis that helped my research immensely. Nowadays, I am full-time at Scripps/HHMI.
You came to the United States after growing up in Lebanon. Students from other countries face particularly difficult challenges if their research is not going well, especially if their Principal Investigator is not supportive. Do you have any words of advice?
This is a tough one: the system is not ideally set up for a healthy power dynamic. I think the best advice I can think of is to select carefully. Realize that you are finding a home for the next 3-5 years, and it isn’t only about the science and project but the person you are choosing as a lifetime mentor and partner. If the choice turns out to be not ideal, the US is big enough that it might offer other opportunities, but best to pick wisely first.
You study pressure. Any advice to young scientists or biotech entrepreneurs on how to cope with the pressure of doing their own thing while being heavily scrutinized by the scientific community, grant reviewers, or investors?
It’s seemed to work for me to stay focused on the ultimate goal, whether it is a scientific insight or impact on patients. Also paying attention to the things you can control versus external things less under your influence. I’m also a big proponent of getting outside in the fresh air: exercise and time with friends can give perspective and mental energy.
While predictions are hard, what do you anticipate might be your research’s most interesting commercial applications?
It would be awesome to develop a local, maybe topical, way of regulating Piezos for chronic pain. Or maybe there will someday be a virtual reality application to stimulating Piezos to mimic feeling pressure.
What’s next for you? Ever thought of starting a company? Or are you still in love with academia?
I think research is my core passion and starting a company might be better left to others with those skills. I have so much left to discover about Piezos and other channels; I’ll probably stay focused there for a while. --Dr. Patapoutian
We want to thank Dr. Patapoutian for sharing his thoughts and insights. We hope his journey can serve as inspiration for scientists and entrepreneurs everywhere, especially those who take the challenging road to immigrate to the U.S. and start something from scratch.