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October 4, 2004
2004 Nobel in Medicine: Smelling Success
The 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded yesterday to Richard Axel and Linda Buck for their work on the neurobiology of smell. While previous Nobel's have been awarded to scientists who discovered how sight (1981) and sound (1961) are perceived, figuring out the human nose took longer because it required modern DNA technology to find the microscopic cells and track the proteins.
As Nature described, "Together they discovered a large gene family, comprised of some 1,000 different genes (some 3 percent of our genes) that give rise to an equivalent number of olfactory receptor types. These receptors are located on the olfactory receptor cells, which occupy a small area in the upper part of the nasal epithelium and detect the inhaled odorant molecules. They also worked out the neural circuitry that passes the signal on to the higher parts of the brain, which deal with more complex matters, such as automatic recall of a childhood memory or, more pragmatically, deciding whether to discard a whiffy meal or move closer to a potential mate."
Understanding the neurobiology of our senses have recently lead to a new set of neuropharmaceutical companies focused treating age-related sensory decline and sensory loss. Some of the leading sensoceutical companies include Eyetech Pharmaceuticals, Sound Pharmaceuticals and Pain Therapeutics.
I wonder when they'll figure out how to make everything taste good too.
Update 10/08: In 2000, Sentigen Holdings Corp. licensed the right to the olfactory discoveries from Columbia University. Patents are pending. (source: WSJ 10/04)
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