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  • Peter J. Ratcliffe in Oxford, Monday Oct. 7, 2019, shortly after being announced as one of three scientists awarded for the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. (Catherine King via AP)

  • William G. Kaelin, Jr. talks to a reporter after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in Boston. Kaelin, who teaches at Harvard, will share the prize with Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability, the Nobel Committee announced Monday. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

  • This photo made available by Oxford University shows Peter J. Ratcliffe in Haddenham, near Oxford, England, June 2019. (Paul Wilkinson/Oxford University via AP)

  • Thomas Perlmann, far right, Secretary-General of the Nobel Committee announces the 2019 Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine during a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, Monday Oct. 7, 2019. (Pontus Lundahl/TT via AP)

  • Professor Randall Johnson of the Nobel Commitee, right, speaks during a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, Monday Oct. 7, 2019. (Pontus Lundahl/TT via AP)

Monday, October 07, 2019 8:30 am

3 get Nobel Medicine prize for learning how cells use oxygen

JAN M. OLSEN, MARIA CHENG and DAVID KEYTON | Associated Press

Researcher found out how to change oxygen levels

STOCKHOLM (AP) — The Latest on the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology (all times local): 

2:40 p.m. 

Dr. Gregg Semenza, a top researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says he was awakened by a call from Stockholm shortly before 4 a.m. with the good news that he is one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. 

He's been too barraged by phone calls ever since to even think about how to spend his share of the award money. 

Semenza and two others are being honored for research into how genes respond to varying levels of oxygen. Semenza said his team was studying a rare kidney cell type years ago when they discovered that the same phenomenon happens throughout the body. It has such widespread physiological importance that it has opened up many possible avenues for more research and treatments for everything from anemia to cancer to diabetes and heart disease. 

Researchers have since learned how to switch on and off genes that can increase or decrease oxygen levels. By doing this, they can kill a cancer cell, or stimulate blood vessel growth in heart patients. People with chronic kidney disease can get injections to increase their oxygen levels. And drugs are in development in pill form to turn on red blood cell production. Semenza expects some to reach the market in the next few years. 

Now that DNA sequencing is possible, Semenza said they've learned that the phenomenon they once discovered in a rare kidney cell is evident throughout the genomes of people who have adapted to low-oxygen environments, such as Tibetans who live at high altitude. Semenza says this shows that some genetic changes can occur spontaneously as the human body adapts. 

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1:15 p.m. 

A member of the Nobel Committee at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet says this year's award was given for "a fundamental basic science discovery about how the body adapts to different levels of oxygen." 

Nils-Goran Larsson told The Associated Press that although we are surrounded by oxygen "we have to adapt to different oxygen levels – for instance if we start living at higher altitude we have to adapt and get more red blood cells, more blood vessels, and also in different disease processes the regulation of oxygen and the metabolism is very important." 

Larsson says "people with renal failure often get hormonal treatment for anemia. With this discovery system there are alternative ways of doing this and developing similar treatments." 

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was earlier in the day given jointly to medics William G. Kaelin, Jr., Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their research into how cells respond to levels of oxygen. 

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1:05 p.m. 

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is celebrating one of its top researchers, Dr. Gregg Semenza, who shares this year's Nobel Prize for medicine for his work on how genes respond to low levels of oxygen. 

Semenza's dean, Paul B. Rothman, says his "groundbreaking basic research has been inspired largely by what he has seen in the clinic" at Hopkins. The university says that work has "far-reaching implications in understanding the impacts of low oxygen levels in blood disorders, blinding eye diseases, cancer, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and other conditions." 

The 63-year-old Semenza shares the award with William G. Kaelin Jr., professor of medicine at Harvard University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who did his specialist training in internal medicine and oncology at Johns Hopkins, and Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, professor at Oxford University and at the Francis Crick Institute. 

Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels calls it a momentous day, and says they're immensely proud of Semenza's passion for discovery, an example of the school's commitment to creating new knowledge that helps make a better and more humane world. 

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1 p.m. 

Reached at his home in the Boston area, Kaelin said he was half-asleep when his phone rang at 4:50 a.m. 

"I was aware as a scientist that if you get a phone call at 5 a.m. with too many digits, it's sometimes very good news, and my heart started racing. It was all a bit surreal," he said. 

Kaelin, who was born in the New York City borough of Queens and grew up in the city's suburbs, said the prize committee had initially been unable to find his phone number so they first reached his sister, "and that will become part of the family lore." 

Kaelin said he isn't sure yet how he'll spend the prize money but "obviously I'll try to put it to some good cause." 

Asked what practical payoffs have been achieved from his work, Kaelin explained that "the molecular pathway that my fellow prize winners and I helped to define converges on a protein called HIF, and as a result of this work there are now opportunities to either increase or decrease HIF." 

He said drugs are being developed to do that. Certain diseases like anemia might be treated by increasing HIF, while inhibiting that protein could help with other diseases including certain cancers. 

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12:50 p.m. 

Dr. Andrew Murray of the University of Cambridge says the three winners of the Nobel prize in medicine "revealed the elegant mechanisms by which our cells sense oxygen levels and respond to fluctuations. 

In a statement on Monday, Murray said that hypoxia – when the body doesn't have enough oxygen – is a characteristic of numerous diseases including heart failure, chronic lung disease and many cancers. 

He said the work of Dr. William G. Kaelin Jr, Dr. Gregg Semenza and Dr. Peter Ratcliffe has "paved the way to greater understanding of these common, life-threatening conditions and new strategies to treat them." 

12:15 p.m. 

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given jointly to William G. Kaelin Jr, who was born in 1957 in New York City and is a professor of medicine at Harvard University; Peter Ratcliffe, 65, of the University of Oxford; and 63-year-old Gregg L. Semenza at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 

The trio was given the award jointly for their discoveries of "how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability," the Nobel Committee announced Monday. 

Thomas Perlmann, the secretary of the Nobel Committee at the Sweden's Karolinska Instititute, said he was able to call the three laureates Monday, adding the last one he called was Kaelin. He reached him via his sister who gave him two phone numbers – the first one was a wrong number but he reached Kaelin on the second. 

"He was really happy," Perlmann told a news conference. 

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11:30 a.m. 

The 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to scientists William G. Kaelin, Jr, Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza. 

They received the award jointly for their discoveries of "how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability," the Nobel Committee announced Monday. 

It is the 110th prize in the category that has been awarded since 1901. 

The Karolinska Institutet said in a statement the trio should share equally the 9 million kronor ($918,000) cash award. 

The discoveries made by the three men "have fundamental importance for physiology and have paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and many other diseases." 

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8:30 a.m. 

The winners of this year's Nobel Prizes are to be announced over the next week, to include two literature laureates and the coveted Nobel Peace Prize. 

Events begin Monday with the award for physiology or medicine. The physics prize is handed out Tuesday and the following day is the chemistry prize. 

This year's double-header Literature Prizes will be awarded Thursday and the Peace Prize will be announced on Friday. 

The economics prize – officially known as the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel – will be awarded on Oct. 14. 

The 2018 literature prize was suspended after a scandal rocked the Swedish Academy. The body plans to award it this year, along with announcing the 2019 laureate. 

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Read more stories on the 2019 Nobel Prizes by The Associated Press at https://www.apnews.com/NobelPrizes

 

STOCKHOLM – Two Americans and a British scientist won the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discovering how the body's cells sense and react to oxygen levels, work that has paved the way for new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and other diseases, the Nobel Committee said.

Drs. William G. Kaelin Jr. of Harvard University, Gregg L. Semenza of Johns Hopkins University and Peter J. Ratcliffe at the Francis Crick Institute in Britain and Oxford University will share equally the 9 million kronor ($918,000) cash award, the Karolinska Institute said.

It is the 110th prize in the category that has been awarded since 1901.

Their work has "greatly expanded our knowledge of how physiological response makes life possible," the committee said, explaining that the scientists identified the biological machinery that regulates how genes respond to varying levels of oxygen.

That response is key to things like producing red blood cells, generating new blood vessels and fine-tuning the immune system.

The Nobel Committee said scientists are focused on developing drugs that can treat diseases by either activating or blocking the body's oxygen-sensing machinery.

The oxygen response is hijacked by cancer cells, for example, which stimulate formation of blood vessels to help themselves grow. And people with kidney failure often get hormonal treatments for anemia, but the work of the new laureates points the way toward new treatments, Nils-Goran Larsson of the Nobel committee told The Associated Press.

Reached at his home, Kaelin said he was half-asleep Monday morning when the phone rang. It was Stockholm.

"I was aware as a scientist that if you get a phone call at 5 a.m. with too many digits, it's sometimes very good news, and my heart started racing. It was all a bit surreal," he said.

Kaelin said he isn't sure yet how he'll spend the prize money but "obviously I'll try to put it to some good cause."

Ratcliffe told Sweden's news agency TT on Monday that "when I started my research I also had no idea that it would result in this."

He added the impact of oxygen on cells "has not always been a trendy area to research, and some people have doubted them during the journey."

Last year, James Allison of the United States and Tasuku Honjo of Japan won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Medicine for their work in immunotherapy, activating the body's natural defense system to fight tumors.

Monday's announcement kicked off this year's Nobel Prizes. The Nobel Physics prize is handed out Tuesday, followed by the chemistry prize on Wednesday. This year's double-header Literature Prizes — one each for 2018 and 2019 — will be awarded Thursday and the Peace Prize will be announced on Friday.

The economics prize will be awarded on Oct. 14.

The 2018 Nobel Literature prize was suspended after a sex abuse scandal rocked the Swedish Academy, the body that awards the literature prizes, so they are awarding two prizes this year.

Prize founder Alfred Nobel – a Swedish industrialist and the inventor of dynamite – decided the physics, chemistry, medicine and literature prizes should be awarded in Stockholm, and the peace prize in Oslo. He also designated the institutions responsible for the prizes: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry; the Karolinska Institute is responsible for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; the Swedish Academy picks the Nobel Prize in Literature; and a committee of five people elected by the Norwegian Parliament decides who wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

The economics prize – officially known as the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel – wasn't created by Nobel, but by Riksbanken, Sweden's central bank, in 1968. It is the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that was tasked with selecting the winner.

The laureates will receive their awards at elegant ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on Dec. 10 – the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.

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Read more stories on the 2019 Nobel Prizes by The Associated Press at https://www.apnews.com/NobelPrizes

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Olsen reported from Copenhagen, Denmark, and Cheng from London. Malcolm Ritter contributed from New York.