The Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded to William Kaelin of Harvard University, Peter Ratcliffe of Oxford University and Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University for their work on adapting cells to the oxygen availability.
It is medicine that opens the ball. Last year, the Nobel Prize was awarded to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their work on immunotherapy. This year, William G. Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza were honored for their discoveries on the adaptation mechanisms of tissues and organs to oxygen needs. For this “cru” 2019, the Karolinska institute still received 633 nominations!
Oxygenation of the cells
To live, our cells need oxygen. However, this oxygen supply is never constant, for one reason or another – because you are exercising or because of certain diseases. To understand how our cells respond to these variations in oxygen supply, Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University first looked at the erythropoietin (EPO) gene. It is a hormone that produces more red blood cells when the oxygen level is low.
This researcher has identified two proteins that seem to control the functioning of the gene. He also discovered that one of them was reacting to oxygen levels. For simple fact, he noted that this protein is present when oxygen levels are low, and it disappears when oxygen levels are sufficient.
William Kaelin of Harvard University, Peter Ratcliffe of Oxford University, for their part identified another protein, called VHL. This would be responsible for the destruction of the first protein, described above – when oxygen levels are sufficient.
Note also that if the first work was on a single gene, the researchers then managed to isolate at least 300 other genes regulated by the original protein identified by Semenza. It’s the discovery of this incredible molecular process that has just been rewarded.
A possible revolution in medicine
This work, in addition to the simple fact of better understanding the operation of our cells, opens a new window of research for the treatment of a range of diseases, from anemia to heart attack through cancer. All the genes noted above being involved in these disorders.
Nobel Prize Week continues tomorrow with the Physics Prize. The Nobel Prize in Physics (Tuesday), Chemistry (Wednesday), Literature (Thursday) will follow. The Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded on Friday, and the economy prize next Monday.