Three researchers from the United States and Britain yesterday shared the Nobel Medicine Prize for research into how human cells sense and adapt to changing oxygen levels, opening up new strategies to fight common diseases such as cancer and anaemia.
William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza of the United States and Britain’s Peter Ratcliffe split the nine million Swedish kronor ($914,000, 833,000 euros) award. While the fact that humans need oxygen to survive has been understood for centuries, how the body registers and responds to oxygen was little known prior to the trio’s pioneering work.
“They established the basis for our understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological function,” the jury said. Semenza studied a gene known as EPO which causes the body to create more red blood cells and isolated the specific DNA segments that help it to adapt to low oxygen levels.
Ratcliffe and Semenza then applied this knowledge to show that the oxygen sensing mechanism was present in virtually all human tissues. Kaelin identified another gene, present in patients with a genetic disorder that puts them at far greater risk of certain cancers.