2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine Jointly Awarded to Three Scientists

The scientists were awarded the prize for their discovery of how cells sense oxygen.
Fabienne Lang

It's that time of the year when the Nobel Prizes are awarded, and you should be excited. All week long, the names of outstanding people, researchers, and scientists will be nominated and they'll be awarded different kinds of Nobel Prizes.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2019 was jointly awarded today to three renowned scientists: William G. Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, and Gregg L. Semenza. 

The prize was given "for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability," as per the Nobel Prize's press release.


How have their findings affected our day to day life?

Awarded American scientists William Kaelin, and Gregg Semenza, as well as British scientist Sir Peter Ratcliffe's findings have affected our day to day life from exercise, to how we cope at high altitudes, and to fetus development in the womb. 

2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine Jointly Awarded to Three Scientists
William Kaelin. Source: Harvard Cancer Center

Thanks to their research and discoveries, new treatments for anemia, and even cancer, have made a push forward.

The well-known Swedish Academy said, "The fundamental importance of oxygen has been understood for centuries, but how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen has long been unknown."

Ratcliffe is based at the Francis Crick Institute and the University of Oxford in the U.K., Kaelin is at Harvard in the U.S., and Semenza is based at Johns Hopkins University, also in the U.S.

Professor Sir Peter Ratcliffe
Sir Peter Ratcliffe. Source: University of Oxford 

Oxygen, the very air we breathe

Us, along with many living organisms, depend on oxygen in order to breathe and to stay alive. Our bodies rely entirely on it to convert food into reusable energy. 

When we exercise or are at high altitudes, for example, our oxygen levels differ. When oxygen levels drop, our cells are forced to adapt their metabolism. 

Our body can trigger the creation of more red blood cells, or to create more blood vessels, thanks to its oxygen-sensing ability. 

2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine Jointly Awarded to Three Scientists
Gregg Semenza. Source: Johns Hopkins University

How do our bodies sense oxygen?

It has been known that a hormone, called erythropoietin, or EPO, rose when oxygen went down. However, no one knew why, until now. 

This is where the three Nobel scientists' work comes in.

Firstly, they demonstrated how a grouping of proteins called hypoxia-inducible factor, or HIF, could bind DNA and even change how it acts. This explained why EPO rises when oxygen levels lower.

Next, their work showed how HIF is constantly being made by cells but is also constantly destroyed when oxygen levels are regular. The protein that destroys these levels is called VHL

Finally, the trio discovered that HIF and VHL could only chemically react when there was oxygen. 

How does this help with medicine today? 

By understanding and knowing how to manipulate our bodies' oxygen-sensing abilities, new medical treatments can be created. 

New drugs that tap into the oxygen-sensing system to create the production of red blood cells can help those suffering from anemia. 

In the case of cancers, tumors can hijack the process and create new blood vessels, thus enabling cancer to grow. Thanks to the three Nobel Laureates' discovery, however, drugs can be created to reverse this process, slowing down the tumor's growth. 

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