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David Julius

(1955 - )

David Julius was born on November 4, 1955, in Brighton Beach, New York, which he described as “a landing pad for Eastern European immigrants like my grandparents, who fled Czarist Russia and anti-Semitism in pursuit of a better life.”

Julius attended public school before earning his B.S. degree in life sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977. He received his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1984. In 1990, he completed his post-doctoral training at Columbia University. where his focus turned to neuropharmacology and receptor function.

He joined the faculty of UC San Francisco in 1989. He is professor and chair of the Department of Physiology and holds the Morris Herzstein Chair in Molecular Biology and Medicine.

Julius has focused on identifying and understanding molecular mechanisms involved in our senses of touch and pain. In 1997, Julius’ lab cloned and characterized TRPV1 which is the receptor that detects capsaicin, the chemical in chili peppers that makes them “hot.” The lab also cloned and characterized TRPM8 (CMR1) and TRPA1, both members of the TRP superfamily. They demonstrated that TRPM8 detects menthol and cooler temperatures and TRPA1 detects mustard oil (allyl isothiocyanate). These observations suggested that TRP channels detect a range of temperatures and chemicals.

In 2000, Julius was awarded the inaugural Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize for his work on cloning the capsaicin receptor. In 2010, he won the Shaw Prize for his work identifying the ion channels involved in various aspects of nociception. In 2014 he was honored by Johnson & Johnson with the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research for discovering the molecular basis for pain and thermosensation. In 2017, he won the Gairdner Foundation International Award and the HFSP Nakasone Award. He has also been awarded the 2010 Prince of Asturias Prize for Technical and Scientific Research, the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, and the 2020 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience (together with Ardem Patapoutian), and the 2020 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award.

In 2021, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch. The Nobel Foundation said in its announcement:

Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us. In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates.
David Julius utilized capsaicin, a pungent compound from chili peppers that induces a burning sensation, to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat. Ardem Patapoutian used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a novel class of sensors that respond 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. The laureates identified critical missing links in our understanding of the complex interplay between our senses and the environment.

Thomas Perlmann, the secretary general of the Nobel Assembly, said the discovery “unlocks the secrets of nature ... It explains at a molecular level how these stimuli are converted into nerve signals. It's an important and profound discovery.”

Julius serves on the Board of Directors of The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience and is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Pew Scholars Program in Biomedical Sciences. He served on the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

Julius is married to Holly Ingraham, PhD, a Professor of Physiology at UCSF. Their son is Philip Julius.

Sources: “David Julius,” Wikipedia.
“Biography of David Julius,” UCSF, (October 4, 2021).
“The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2021,” Press Release, (October 4, 2021).
Shira Hanau, “Scientist David Julius, whose grandparents fled antisemitism in Czarist Russia, wins Nobel Prize in medicine,” JTA, (October 4, 2021).
Ivana Kottasová and Katie Hunt, “How chili peppers helped Nobel Prize winners understand how we feel heat,” CNN, (October 4, 2021).

Photo: Lfsphd, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.