Trio wins Nobel Medicine Prize for uncovering how cells sense and adapt to oxygen levels

William Kaelin, Gregg Semenza (US), and Peter Ratcliffe (UK) jointly received the Nobel Medicine Prize for their work on how cells gauge and respond to oxygen availability, knowledge which could point the way towards new cancer treatments.

Together, the three identified the molecular mechanisms that regulate genetic activity in response to changes in oxygen levels inside the body — a mechanism that can be co-opted to fight a host of conditions.

Putting the O in operational

“[The team] established the basis for our understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological function,” the jury said, adding that their research has “paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer and many other diseases.”

There is a sizeable interest in academia and the pharmaceutical industry to develop compounds that can activate, block, or alter the oxygen-sensing mechanisms in living cells.

Oxygen is vital to animal cells, which use the gas to extract energy from food via oxidation. However, oxygen availability can fluctuate quite wildly for different tissues at different times, and when it’s in short supply, cells need to adapt. The jury awarded the Nobel Prize to the trio in recognition of the potential of their findings going forward, for both academia and industry.

“This prize is for three physician scientists who found the molecular switch that regulates how our cells adapt when oxygen levels drop,” Randall Johnson of the Nobel Assembly told reporters.

Kaelin, 61, works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US. Semenza, 63, is the director of the Vascular Research Program at the John Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering. Ratcliffe, 65, is the director of clinical research at the Francis Crick Institute in London, and director of the Target Discovery Institute in Oxford.

The 2019 Nobel session is shaping up to be quite an exciting one — after a scandal postponed the awarding of last year’s literature prize, we’re set for two laureates in that category this year. The Peace Prize, to be awarded this Friday in Oslo, is also likely to spark public debate (hopefully, civil), as it has been speculated that Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg could receive it for her campaign against climate change (which has been quite polarizing so far). Other strong contenders are the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who signed a peace deal with Eritrea, ending two decades of conflict, and NGOs such as Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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