Nobel prize winner Ardem Patapoutian awarded Lebanese Order of Merit

The Lebanon-born scientist made breakthrough findings on how people sense heat, cold and touch

Ardem Patapoutian in his lab at the Dorris Neuroscience Centre in San Diego. AP
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Lebanese President Michel Aoun awarded Lebanon-born Ardem Patapoutian the national Order of Merit on Wednesday, in recognition of his scientific and medical achievements.

Dr Patapoutian and his colleague David Julius were named the winners of the Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday after making breakthrough findings on how people sense heat, cold and touch.

Mr Aoun said Dr Patapoutian’s achievement reflected the potential of Lebanon and its people.

“I received with pride the news of your winning of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Medicine,” Mr Aoun said.

“All of humanity will be grateful for the results of your medical research, which represents an important contribution to scientific efforts aimed at promoting prevention and treatment in the health field, and for a more comprehensive understanding of the functions of the human body.”

Dr Patapoutian, a professor of neuroscience at Scripps Research Institute in California and an American University of Beirut alumnus, left Lebanon in the 1980s, a few months after being captured and held by armed militants.

He is the first AUB alumnus to win a Nobel prize.

“I remember with fondness: my sports club where I played basketball [not well, see height above] and table tennis [local champ!], our trips to the Mediterranean Sea and the wooded mountains surrounding Beirut, and the beautiful campus of the American University of Beirut, where I attended one year of undergraduate classes as a pre-med major,” Dr Patapoutian wrote in an autobiography for the Kavli Prize.

AUB said it was proud to have Dr Patapoutian receive the Nobel prize.

“I was delighted and proud that a young man who grew up in and around AUB and started his academic career at the American University of Beirut had won the Nobel prize,” AUB President Fadlo Khuri told The National.

“This is the first Armenian Lebanese, or Lebanese of any type, resident of Lebanon to win a Nobel prize of any kind. And it is fitting that he started his scientific academic journey at the greatest university, not only of Lebanon, but in the region.”

Dr Khuri said Dr Patapoutian's achievement sends a message of hope to the world that “determined and talented individuals can overcome challenges, rebuild their lives and go on to achieve the ultimate in discoveries and global recognition.

“The message is that people can overcome the many obstacles that Ardem endured, including the closure of his beloved school, the immigration of much of the Armenian community from Lebanon during the war, and especially, being kidnapped after a happy and fulfilling first year at AUB,” Dr Khuri said.

Dr Patapoutian was a chemistry major at AUB between 1985 and 1986 and was placed on the dean’s honour list, the university said.

Last year, Dr Patapoutian shared with Dr Julius the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience. The two Americans also won the Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research in 2019.

Dr Patapoutian’s latest research identified genes that control sensitivity to touch and have a role in how people sense motion and how the body deals with blood pressure, respiration and bladder control.

He said his research had shone light on fundamental human behaviour, which many people rarely question. “In science, many times, it’s the things that we take for granted that are of high interest,” he said.

“Being in the field of sensing touch and pain, this was kind of the big elephant in the room … it was a difficult question to answer.”

Updated: October 07, 2021, 9:46 AM