Expert on pain sensation named UCSF physiology chair

By Wallace Ravven

David Julius, PhD

David Julius, PhD, a pioneer in research clarifying the molecular basis of the sense of pain and temperature, has been named chair of the Department of Physiology in the UCSF School of Medicine.

Julius, whose research bridges neuroscience, physiology and pharmacology, has been a professor and vice chair in the cellular and molecular pharmacology department. His primary faculty position will now be a professorship in the physiology department.

Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004, Julius has earned international recognition for his research probing how the nervous system detects pain-producing stimuli, and how changes in these sensing mechanisms may contribute to chronic pain following tissue or nerve injury.

His research group has exploited the properties of natural products to discover a family of temperature-sensitive ion channels that allow sensory nerve fibers to detect hot or cold temperatures. In one series of studies, his research team identified a component of the mammalian pain transmitting pathway by determining how capsaicin - the main pungent ingredient in some chili peppers - elicits the sensation of burning pain. The researchers found that both capsaicin and noxious heat elicit the sensation of burning pain through activation of the same receptor on sensory neurons.

“The physiology department has the opportunity to represent a very wide span of disciplines,” said Julius, noting its strength in neuroscience as well as many other physiological mechanisms. “We can do everything from molecules to behavior because the culture at UCSF encourages and enables collaborations that cross traditional boundaries.” 

Julius is associate editor of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, and is on the editorial boards of Neuron and the Journal of Neuroscience.

He has been recognized with many honors, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Jacob Javitz Award from the NIH, the McKnight Neuroscience Foundation Scholars Award, a PEW Scholars Award in Biomedical Sciences and a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award.

This year, he was selected to deliver the Faculty Research Lecture at UCSF, the highest honor faculty members bestow on their colleagues.  He has also received the Sandler Award in Basic Science and the Brook Byers Award in Basic Science at UCSF.

Julius was born in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he attended public school. He received his undergraduate degree from MIT, a PhD at UC Berkeley, and pursued post-doctoral studies with Nobel laureate Richard Axel at Columbia University, where his focus turned to neuropharmacology and receptor function.

Julius will receive an annual salary of $249,690, derived from a combination of sources such as state funds, proceeds of research grants and philanthropic dollars consistent with donor intent.

UCSF is a leading university that consistently defines health care worldwide by conducting advanced biomedical research, educating graduate students in the health professions and life sciences, and providing complex patient care.