2017 Canada Gairdner International award winner to present lecture on somatosensation

David Julius, the recipient of the 2017 Canada Gairdner International Award, will present a special lecture titled, “Natural products as probes of the pain pathway: from physiology to atomic structure,” on Wednesday, Oct. 25, from 1:30 to 2:30pm in the Senate Chamber, N940 Ross Building. This special lecture is free and open to members of the University community.

David Julius
David Julius

The lecture is part of the Gairdner Foundation’s National Program of faculty lectures presented at Canadian universities.

Julius is professor and chair of the Department of Physiology and the Morris Herzstein Chair in Molecular Biology and Medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

Julius has used distinctive molecules from the natural world – including toxins from tarantulas and coral snakes, and capsaicin, the molecule that produces the “heat” in chili peppers – to understand how signals responsible for temperature and pain sensation are transmitted by neural circuits to the brain.

In his research he has homed in on a class of proteins called TRP (pronounced “trip”) ion channels to discover how capsaicin elicits a burning sensation when eaten or touched. The research led to the identification and cloning of the specific protein responsible, named TRPV1.

On the flip side, Julius has used menthol, a natural cooling agent, to identify a receptor for “real” cold. This protein, named TRPM8, is a close molecular cousin of TRPV1, pointing to a common mechanism for sensing temperature. As in the case of TRPV1, this ion channel contributes to hypersensitivity to cold, such as that experienced after chemotherapy or other types of nerve injury.

Somatosensation, our sense of touch and pain, serves as a warning system to guard us against injury. While critical to our survival and well-being, this system can become hypersensitive, resulting in chronic pain. This work helps to explain how such positive and negative aspects of pain sensation arise – insight that is critical to understanding the genesis of chronic pain syndromes. One indication of the importance of this work to medicine is the interest in TRP channels as potential targets for a new generation of painkillers.

Every October, current and past Canada Gairdner Award recipients travel from St. John’s, Nfld. to Vancouver, B.C. giving lectures and meeting with scientists and trainees at more than 24 universities. The national program concludes in Toronto with three days of scientific symposia and the awards dinner.

The 2017 Gairdner Foundation Patrons are the Government of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, The Globe & Mail, and the Government of Ontario. The event is supported by York University.

For more information on the program, visit the Gairdner Foundation website.