Research on fundamental cell process wins Medicine Nobel 2019

William Kaelin, Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg Semenza had described how a cell senses and adapts to the level of oxygen available

By Vibha Varshney
Last Updated: Monday 07 October 2019

William Kaelin, Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg Semenza have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for describing how a cell senses and adapts to the level of oxygen available.

William Kaelin is at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Peter Ratcliffe is from University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and Gregg Semenza is at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Semenza was studying the EPO gene for the hormone erythropoietin and found a specific DNA segment next to the gene which mediates the cell’s response to oxygen.

A protein complex, which he called hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF), attached itself to this DNA segment based on the level of oxygen in the environment. When oxygen levels are low, the amount of HIF increases.

Ratcliffe also studied the EPO gene. At this time, Kaelin was studying von Hippel-Lindau’s disease, which leads to increased risk of certain cancers. He found that cancer cells lacking a functional VHL gene express abnormally high levels of hypoxia-regulated genes.

The new knowledge would help to treat major diseases like cancer and anaemia. At the press meeting organised to announce the prize, Randall Johnson of Karolinska Institute, who is on the Nobel Prize selection committee explained that the understanding is already being used.

For example, a treatment for anaemia is already under clinical trial in China. This treatment depends on increasing HIF expression to treat anaemia.

The award is for 9 million Swedish Kroner and would be divided equally among the three researchers.

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