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 Oct. 10, 2000 -- No. 532

Californian wins neuroscience prize endowed by UNC-CH scientist

By LESLIE H. LANG
UNC-CH School of Medicine

CHAPEL HILL -- A California researcher has become the first winner of a national prize endowed by a distinguished scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize, to be awarded annually, recognizes outstanding scientific contributions to the field of neuroscience.

The recently announced $10,000 prize goes to Dr. David Julius, professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine.

Julius discovered the nerve cell molecule that mediates responses to capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot peppers. The capsaicin receptor, VR1, also is responsible for the transmission of noxious heat sensations.

That discovery four years ago, and Juliusí subsequent studies, build on the pioneering research of neurophysiologist Dr. Edward R. Perl, Sarah Graham Kenan professor of cell and molecular physiology at the UNC-CH School of Medicine. Perlís work in pain mechanisms has been highly influential. Thirty years ago, he was the first to prove that a particular class of nerve cells (now called nociceptors) respond exclusively to stimuli that people perceive as painful. His work has had a decisive impact on modern pain research and these cells are now targets of intensive efforts to find drugs that block their function.

"Although Ed showed that a class of sensory neurons respond exclusively to painful stimuli, no molecules had been identified that provide the basis for how those neurons were able to do that," said Dr. William Snider, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center and head of the selection committee for the Perl prize.

"And people had known that capsaicin applied to sensory neurons causes them to be electrically active. Yet attempts to identify, clone or purify a receptor for this ingredient had failed. David Julius, using an ingenious assay system and sophisticated molecular techniques, was able to clone the gene encoding this receptor. Remarkably, it then turned out that the receptor also mediates responses to noxious heat."

Moreover, the only neurons in the entire nervous system that express the receptor VR1 are the neurons in the dorsal root ganglia that respond to pain.

"This discovery is a major achievement because itís the first molecule that provides insight into how the nociceptors that Ed identified work," Snider added.

Julius said he was honored to have received the award.

"I take great pride and pleasure in being named the recipient of the first Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize," Julius said. "Of course, this prize is made possible through the generosity of Ed Perl, but it also reflects his pioneering studies in the area of nociception and sensory neuron functioning."

Julius will visit the Carolina campus in February to present recent findings from his laboratory.

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Note to media: Dr. William Snider can be reached at (919) 843-8623.
School of Medicine contact: Les Lang, (919) 843-9687 or lland@med.unc.edu