Trio wins Nobel in medicine
or physiology for oxygen studies

Published October 07 2018

Gregg Semenza Gregg Semenza is a past editorial board member for the Journal of Biological Chemistry, an ASBMB publication. Hopkins University Gregg L. Semenza at Johns Hopkins University, William G. Kaelin Jr. at the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute and Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe at Oxford University have won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.

When oxygen levels dip, the body’s primary response is to upregulate the kidney’s production of the hormone erythropoietin, which leads to an increase in the production of red blood cells. This regulatory action governs many biological processes, including wound healing, metabolism, embryonic development and altitude adjustment. It also plays a role in a staggering number of diseases, including anemia, stroke, infection, myocardial infarction and cancer.

“It’s all around us. We literally can’t live without it. Yet most of the time we never even notice it. It is oxygen, a highly reactive chemical that in pure form is toxic yet is essential for the function of all animal cells,” explained Gregory A. Petsko, an endowed professor at Weill Cornell Medical College and former American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology president. “Today’s Nobel prize honors three people who discovered how those cells sense the availability of oxygen and respond by adjusting their metabolism and growth properties. Because cells in the middle of solid tumors have very little oxygen available to them, understanding this process is leading to new approaches to the treatment of cancer.”

Semenza, a member of the ASBMB and the National Academy of Sciences, earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1971 and both his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984. He then completed his residency in pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center in 1986, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in medical genetics at Johns Hopkins, where he became a faculty member in 1990. At Hopkins in 1995, he became the first scientist to identify genes that code for hypoxia-inducible factor.

Semenza will share the roughly $1.1 million prize with Kaelin and Ratcliffe. The trio previously won the Lasker Award in 2016 for their research involving hypoxia-sensing mechanisms.

John Arnst John Arnst is ASBMB Today’s science writer. Follow him on Twitter.