Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to two Americans and a Brit for work on adaptation of cells to varying levels of oxygen

October 7, 2019 • 11:30 am

0This just in: the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the three people below (click on screenshot to go to the Nobel site):

I don’t know these researchers, nor much about their work, but I’ve put an informative video below (which shows you how the Prizes are announced, and what garnered one this year), and this is from the CNN report:

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Medicine has been jointly awarded to William Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg Semenza for their pioneering research into how human cells respond to changing oxygen levels.

Announcing the prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Monday, the Nobel committee said that the trio’s discoveries have paved the way for “promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer and many other diseases.”

The importance of oxygen has long been established, the committee explained, but how cells adapt to changes in its levels remained unknown.

Randall Johnson, prize committee member, described the trio’s work as a “textbook discovery.”

“This is something basic biology students will be learning about when they study, at aged 12 or 13, or younger, biology and learn the fundamental ways cells work,” he said.

“This is a basic aspect of how a cell works and, from that standpoint alone, it’s a very exciting thing.”

All three scientists worked independently over a period of more than two decades to establish how cells can sense and adapt to changing oxygen availability. The 2019 prize laureates, the committee said, identified molecular machinery that regulates the activity of genes in response to varying oxygen levels.

Johnson added that the laureates had “greatly expanded our knowledge of how physiological response makes life possible” and were “necessary actors in figuring out how this whole thing works.”

Explaining why the scientists were being recognized for the award, which is officially known as the the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, this year, Johnson said their discoveries were now a “complete and clear story.”

“It’s very clear that we now understand this fundamental biological switch that really impacts all our lives as living creatures here on earth breathing oxygen.”

As I said in my tweet, I thought this would be the year that the CRISPR gene-editing system would garner the Prize, but there may be some controversy about exactly which researchers should get one (many have worked on it, and a Prize can be split between at most three scientists).

Here’s the announcement, along with a nice presentation of the work’s significance:

h/t: Rick

16 thoughts on “Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to two Americans and a Brit for work on adaptation of cells to varying levels of oxygen

  1. Various wags noted that Trump’s extensive research into windmill cancer were overlooked this year…..

    1. Since Trump’s erection, I’ve not seen a single windmill with cancer? Coincidence? I doubt it.

      1. I contemplated a mushroom joke, but I’m trying to eat a yoghurt at my desk and really didn’t want to put myself off it 😉

  2. Awesome topic! I’d have thought such research to be “details”, as they say – glad to learn of this!

  3. Two comments. First, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Nobel committee is holding off on the CRISPR award because of current political/legal tensions (although limiting the award to Doudna and Charpentier makes sense to me). Second, like Jerry, I know nothing more about this year’s science than what I’ve read in the media. However, I’ve always been fascinated by oxygen and its role in life – both as necessary for aerobic respiration and as a toxin, particularly in its free radical forms. Thus, this research would seem to me to be contributing to an understanding of aerobic life and (potentially) how it evolved.

    1. I’m at a point where I want the prize given for CRISPR ASAP, because this is wearing me out – an intellectual sensationalism of sorts, I don’t know what – CRISPR research almost cannot be brought up without an undertone of Nobel Prize excitement.

  4. He said this in in animals (obvs.)

    But does anyone know if fungi have something like an oxygen sensing capability? I’d expect so

    [ off I go to read s but … ]

    1. More specifically, they’re talking about a mechanism recognised from regions associated with forming blood cells. On that basis, I wouldn’t necessarily expect this mechanism to extend even as far as insects and crustaceans which have a very different “blood” structure to vertebrates.
      Of course, it’s possible that these genes (duplicated at many places in the human genome) are derived from more fundamental gene families that extend to fungi (almost animals, phylogenetically) or even prokaryotes. But there was no mention of that in the video.
      It’s really hard to hear the questions on that video. But I think all the questions an comments refer to metazoans, not the rest of organisms.
      Some fungi – single celled or metazoan – can live in lower-oxygen conditions, but they still have mitochondria (well, they have a mitochondrial genetic code, so I guess they have mitochondria), so they need to be able to sense changes in oxygen environment and respond to it. They may use a different mechanism, but that would then raise a nice raft of implications.
      When the first oxygen synthesising organisms developed, away back in the Archean, they’d pretty rapidly have needed to sense when their toxic waste was accumulating so they could move away from it. That basic oxygen sensing need would have continued (with modifications) until the present, probably in all organisms, whether aerobic or anaerobic. Whether this vertebrate (or wider? see above) system is a derivative of that one, or developed from something else … is a good question.
      Non-oxygen synthesising organisms would also have had to develop oxygen-sensing systems, or die. So I’d expect there to be at least one (likely more) lines of genes for that to be described in prokaryotic obligate anaerobes. I’m sure I’m not the first to think down those lines.

  5. Congratulations to the winners.

    “’This prize is for three physician scientists who found the molecular switch that regulates how our cells adapt when oxygen levels drop.’” – 3:32 in

    “’Under low oxygen conditions HIF (1-alpha I believe) is made, it accumulates in the nucleus, and that results in the induction of wide variety of oxygen sensitive genes.’” – 8:48 in

    “‘The problem is cells inside a three dimensional structure like the body are always getting different amounts of oxygen. It can depend on different levels of blood flow. It can depend on the fact that the tissue itself might be using a lot of oxygen at any given time. My brain is probably using a fair amount right now…’” – 26:53 in

    Before watching the video, I thought this was going to be much more about the changes in high altitude populations. The questions at the end seemed to be more about how the findings can help with advances in medicine relating to tumors and anemia. This sounds like very good news. I’m wondering which one of the 300 or so oxygen sensitive genes is involved in changes in high altitude populations. Is it one or all 300?

  6. I think the problem of limiting the number of recipients to 3 was discussed here recently. Here it looks like it worked out perfectly, but for other work (CRISP?) it’s going to be very unfortunate. I hope they reconsider their rules.

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