Three scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine ‘for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability’.
The work of Sir Peter Ratcliffe, of the University of Oxford and Francis Crick Institute, William Kaelin, of Harvard, and Gregg Semenza, of Johns Hopkins University is leading to new treatments of anaemia, cancer and many other diseases.
The trio managed to figure out how cells sense falling oxygen levels and respond by making new blood cells and vessels.
A protein called hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) builds up in nearly all the cells in the body when oxygen is in short supply. The rise in HIF helps to produce a hormone that creates oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Humans depend on oxygen to breathe and to stay alive. But nobody really knew how the body was able to create more red blood cells until now.
Their work also showed how HIF is constantly being made by cells but is also constantly destroyed when oxygen levels are regular.
Upon winning the highly decorated prize, the three laureates will share the 9m Swedish krona (£740,000) prize equally.
The 2019 #NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded jointly to William G. Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza “for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.” pic.twitter.com/6m2LJclOoL
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 7, 2019
The Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, said at the press conference:
The fundamental importance of oxygen has been understood for centuries but how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen has long been unknown.
The reason why this could be such a big deal is because drugs that mimic the HIF protein may be an effective treatment for anaemia.
More experimentation based on the findings could help researchers to prevent cancers growing in the future. This would be down to successfully blocking the ability to create new blood vessels.
According to The Guardian, Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said the prize was “richly deserved” by all three winners:
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 about how animal life emerged.
Congratulations to the trio for the incredible achievement. Their work has spanned more than two decades and it’s thoroughly deserved!
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Matt Weston is a lover of electric cars, artificial intelligence and space. From Cornwall, he’s a UCLan graduate that still dreams of being a Formula One driver in the very near future. Previously work includes reporting for regional newspapers and freelance video for the International Business Times.