Two Americans and a British scientist won the 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.
William Kaelin Jr of Harvard University, Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University and Peter Ratcliffe at the Francis Crick Institute in Britain and Oxford University are to share the 9 million kronor (US$918,000) cash award, the Karolinska Institute said.
It is the 110th time the prize has been awarded since 1901.
Their work has “greatly expanded our knowledge of how physiological response makes life possible,” the committee said, adding 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.
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 said.
Reached at his home, Kaelin said he was half-asleep yesterday morning when the telephone rang. It was Stockholm.
“I was aware as a scientist that if you get a phone call at 5am 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 is not sure yet how he will spend the prize money, but “obviously I’ll try to put it to some good cause.”
Ratcliffe told Sweden’s news agency TT that “when I started my research I also had no idea that it would result in this.”
The impact of oxygen on cells “has not always been a trendy area to research, and some people have doubted them during the journey,” he said.
The physics prize is to be handed out today, followed by the chemistry prize tomorrow.
The literature prizes — one for this year and one for last year — are to be awarded on Thursday, the peace prize is to be announced on Friday and the economics prize is to be awarded on Monday next week.
The laureates are to receive their awards at ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on Dec. 10.
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