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Driver of Innovation: Curiosity-Based Science

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By David Julius, PhD, chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and 2013 Winner of Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research

I have been called many things – a biochemist, a yeast geneticist, a molecular biologist, a physiologist, and even a neuroscientist. But the moniker that perhaps best fits my scientific temperament and expectations is that of pharmacologist.

The interaction of small molecules – natural, endogenous, or synthetic – with cellular machinery reveals the beauty and intricacy of biology while providing key access points for and therapeutic gain. Pharmacology provides the bridge between basic, curiosity-driven science and medicine. No one exemplified this more beautifully than Dr. Paul Janssen, who the legendary pharmacologist, Sir James Black, called “the most prolific drug inventor of all time.”

Recently, I returned to my hometown of New York City to celebrate this award that has become one of the most prestigious in the field of basic biomedical research. In the New York Public Library – where I did a lot of my learning growing up – I was presented with my award statue and lauded by executives from Johnson & Johnson and Janssen. It also was a pleasure to discuss the future of scientific advancement and innovation with a group of renowned individuals during a panel discussion at the award ceremony. (To view highlights of the 2013 Dr. Paul Janssen Award celebration panel discussion, please click here.)

I am deeply honored to receive this award, which not only bears Dr. Paul’s name, but also reflects his commitment to scientific research, creativity and integrity as the foundation of therapeutic medicine. Needless to say, it is both exhilarating and humbling to join the list of stellar scientists who have been so recognized since 2006.

We, as a society, support scientific research because we share the twin goals of better understanding our world while reaping tangible outcomes that have the promise to improve and transform the way we live. To achieve these goals, it is still essential to support and nurture curiosity-based science that takes place at all levels of inquiry, ranging from the study of obscure molecules and animals, to model genetic organisms, to humans.

We should support high quality science that includes the broadest spectrum of inquiry, even in cases where the connection to human health may not be along an obvious straight line. We must as a society re-dedicate ourselves to a long-term investment in science, acknowledging that research happens in a multitude of ways, from large group efforts to the results of serendipitous wanderings. We need to support all of these styles if we are to reach our twin goals of better understanding the world in which we live while improving our quality of life.

The element of risk and uncertainty that accompanies this approach to research is balanced by the thrilling possibility of new discoveries and the freedom to follow one’s curiosity – as so beautifully expressed by Dr. Paul’s iconic question, “What’s new?”

Most of us do not choose a life in science because we expect to be singled out for recognition, but it is certainly wonderful when it occurs because such moments remind us that society values what we do, and that people want to share in the thrill of discovery, the advancement of knowledge, and the betterment of mankind. For this, I wish to express my gratitude to the people at Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, the Janssen Family and the selection committee for bestowing this tremendous honor upon me, which I accept on behalf of my family, laboratory, institution, and field of research. Editor’s Note: You can watch Dr. David Julius’ acceptance remarks at the 2013 Dr. Paul Janssen Awards event here:

David Julius was born in 1955 in Brighton Beach, New York. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1977 with a BS in life sciences. He earned a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1984, and completed post-graduate research under Richard Axel at Columbia University. Dr. Julius is currently Professor and Chairman of the Department of Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Dr. Julius is a Member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2010 Shaw Prize in Life Sciences and Medicine.

Dr. Julius was chosen as the winner of the 2013 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research for his discovery of the molecular mechanism that controls thermosensation (sensory perception of temperature) and elucidation of the role this mechanism plays in the sensation of acute and inflammatory pain. By providing a mechanistic view of how stimuli are detected in the body, his discovery significantly advanced the study of pain and may lead to new pain therapies. Using natural products as pharmacological probes, Dr. Julius identified transient receptor potential (TRP) channels on sensory nerve fibers that are activated by heat or cold, providing molecular insight into the process of thermosensation. He began with identifying how capsaicin, the spicy ingredient in chili peppers, produces burning pain. Eventually, he was able to pinpoint a receptor for menthol (TRPM8) and showed that it is activated by cold, revealing a unifying mechanism for temperature detection. Dr. Julius’ research ultimately supplied insight into the detection of painful stimuli, as well as how the nervous system detects changes in ambient temperature. Dr. Julius has studied additional ion channels on sensory nerves using other natural agents, including isothiocyanates from mustard plants and tarantula toxins, as pharmacological probes. This work holds tremendous promise for the development of more effective treatments for those suffering from neurogenic inflammatory diseases.

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