Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to 3 for Work on Cells

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to three scientists — William G. Kaelin Jr., Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza — for their work on how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. The Nobel Assembly announced the prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Monday.

The work of the three men “identified the molecular machinery that regulates the activity of genes in response to varying levels of oxygen,” according to the Nobel Assembly, which described it as a major addition to the scientific understanding of the importance of oxygen to animals.

While the role of oxygen in the process of converting food into useful energy has long been understood, the assembly said, the way that cells adapt to changing oxygen levels remained unknown.

The men discovered how cells can sense and adapt to the changes in oxygen availability and identified the components that regulate how genes respond to oxygen levels.

The discoveries — some of which date back to the mid 1990s — have proved fundamentally important for physiology and shed light on the previously unknown mechanics of how cells respond to changes in their environment. The work established a new basis for understanding cellular metabolism and physiological function, and enhanced understanding of the body’s metabolism, immune response and ability to adapt to exercise.

This work has paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and many other diseases. Randall Johnson, a member of the Nobel Assembly, described the work as a “textbook discovery” and said it would be something students would start learning at the most basic levels of biology education.

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

Professor Kaelin established his own research lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and became a full professor at Harvard Medical School in 2002, the committee said, and he has been an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, based in Maryland, since 1998.

Professor Ratcliffe is the director of clinical research at the Francis Crick Institute in London, the director of the Target Discovery Institute in Oxford, and a member of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. The Nobel Prize Twitter account posted a photo of Professor Ratcliffe writing a grant proposal on Monday, after learning of his award.

Professor Semenza became a full professor at Johns Hopkins University in 1999, and he has been the director of the Vascular Research Program at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering since 2003.

The prize last year went to James P. Allison of the United States and Tasuku Honjo of Japan for their work on immunotherapy, or unleashing the body’s immune system to attack cancer. This breakthrough has resulted in an entirely new class of drugs and brought lasting remissions to many patients who had run out of options.

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