Nobel Prize for Medicine awarded for research on ‘How human cells respond to changing oxygen levels’

The 2019 Nobel Prize for Medicine has been jointly awarded to William Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg Semenza for their research into how human cells respond to changing oxygen levels.

Announcing the prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Monday, the Nobel committee said that the trio’s discoveries have paved the way for “promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer and many other diseases.”

The importance of oxygen has long been established, the committee explained, but how cells adapt to changes in its levels remained unknown.

Randall Johnson, prize committee member, described the trio’s work as a “textbook discovery.”

“This is something basic biology students will be learning about when they study, at aged 12 or 13, or younger, biology and learn the fundamental ways cells work,” he said.

“This is a basic aspect of how a cell works and, from that standpoint alone, it’s a very exciting thing.”

The Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, said: “The fundamental importance of oxygen has been understood for centuries but how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen has long been unknown.”

Oxygen levels vary in the body during exercise, at high altitudes and after a wound disrupts the blood supply.

The oxygen-sensing ability of the body has a role in the immune system and the earliest stages of development inside the womb. If oxygen levels are low, it can trigger the production of red blood cells or the construction of blood vessels to remedy this. More red blood cells mean the body is able to carry more oxygen and is why athletes train at altitude.

So, if drugs mimic it it can be an effective treatment for anaemia.

Meanwhile, tumors hijack this process to selfishly create new blood vessels and grow. So if drugs reverese this process one can cure cancer.

All three scientists worked independently over a period of more than two decades to establish how cells can sense and adapt to changing oxygen availability.

Source : Various