The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded Monday to two American scientists and one British researcher who identified how cells sense changes in oxygen levels and adapt to them, revolutionary work for treating cancer, anemia, strokes and high-altitude sickness.
The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute awarded the prize to Americans William Kaelin Jr. and Gregg Semenza and British scientist Peter Ratcliffe.
“This year’s Nobel Laureates revealed the mechanism for one of life’s most essential adaptive processes,” the Nobel Prize organization said in a statement. “They established the basis for our understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological function. Their discoveries have also paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and many other diseases.”
Semenza began studying how the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) produces more red blood cells as a response to hypoxia, or low oxygen. Ratcliffe was doing similar research, studying how the EPO gene is regulated by oxygen levels.
“In cultured liver cells [Semenza] discovered a protein complex that binds to the identified DNA segment in an oxygen dependent manner,” the group said. “He called this complex the hypoxia-inducible factor [HIF].”
They identified HIF-1a, which appears when oxygen levels are low and disappears when oxygen levels are normal. The HIF-1a rapidly degrades under normal conditions but is protected during periods of hypoxia.
Kaelin focused his research on the von Hippel-Lindau’s disease and found the VHL gene is involved in controlling responses to hypoxia.
“Thanks to the groundbreaking work of these Nobel Laureates, we know much more about how different oxygen levels regulate fundamental physiological processes,” Kaelin said. “Oxygen sensing allows cells to adapt their metabolism to low oxygen levels, for example, in our muscles during intense exercise.”