Nobel Medicine Prize won by doctors for work on cells’ response to oxygen

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Two Americans and a Briton won the 2019 Nobel Medicine Prize on Monday for discovering a molecular switch that regulates how cells adapt to fluctuating oxygen levels, opening up new approaches to treating heart failure, anaemia and cancer.

Thomas Perlmann, Secretary-General of the Nobel Committee, presents the Nobel laureates of this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine during a news conference in Stockholm

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STOCKHOLM/LONDON: Two Americans and a Briton won the 2019 Nobel Medicine Prize on Monday for discovering a molecular switch that regulates how cells adapt to fluctuating oxygen levels, opening up new approaches to treating heart failure, anaemia and cancer.

William Kaelin at the U.S. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School said he was overwhelmed to get a pre-dawn call to say he and two other doctors, Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University and Peter Ratcliffe of Oxford University, had won the 9-million Swedish-crown (US$913,000) prize.

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"I don't usually get phone calls at 5 a.m., but I knew this was 'Nobel Monday', so it was either going to be a poorly timed mobile call or extremely good news," he told Reuters by telephone. "My heart started racing. It was almost surreal."

Ratcliffe, who is also clinical research director at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said in a statement he was "honoured and delighted at the news".

The scientists' work established the basis for understanding of how oxygen levels are sensed by cells – a discovery that is being explored by medical researchers seeking to develop treatments for various diseases that work by either activating or blocking the body's oxygen-sensing machinery.

Their work centres on the hypoxic response – the way the body reacts to oxygen flux – and "revealed the elegant mechanisms by which our cells sense oxygen levels and respond" said Andrew Murray, an expert at Britain's University of Cambridge who congratulated the three.

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"VITAL INGREDIENT"

"Oxygen is the vital ingredient for the survival of every cell in our bodies. Too little – or too much – can spell disaster. Understanding how evolution has equipped cells to detect and respond to fluctuating oxygen levels helps answer fundamental questions," said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of Britain's Royal Society scientific academy.

"As (this) work.. shows us, it also gives insights into the way these processes continue to shape our health and wellbeing."

Randall Johnson, a professor at Sweden's Karolinska Institute where the prize is awarded, said it was "a prize that really tells us the fundamental truth about how cells work".

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