The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to scientists William G. Kaelin Jr., MD, Peter J. Ratcliffe, FRS, FMedSci, and Gregg L. Semenza, MD, PhD, for discovering how cells sense and respond to oxygen.
Their work began in the 1990s, when Dr. Semenza identified genes that switched on when oxygen levels were low to increase erythropoietin levels, thus producing more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. The process allows the human body to adapt to higher altitudes, but cancer cells also can exploit these molecular switches to thrive. Each scientist worked independently to understand the mechanism that allows cells to adapt to different oxygen levels, staying in contact and occasionally sharing data.
While the discoveries could spur new therapies for conditions related to a lack of oxygen, including stroke, heart attacks, respiratory diseases, and cancer, the researchers’ original intent was to follow curiosity and unravel basic biology – they did not necessarily expect their work to have clinical applications, according to Dr. Kaelin, who spoke with The Washington Post after the announcement.
“This kind of research is increasingly under threat. It’s much easier for fundraisers and policymakers to say we will support scientists, but … tell us how it will improve outcomes in five years. When you’re doing real science, you have to be prepared to take the road where it takes you – and if you’re doing science, it’s hard to predict where the road is going to take you,” he said.
The three scientists plan to split the approximately $900,000 award equally.