US and UK researchers share Nobel Medicine Prize

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US researchers William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza and the UK‘s Peter Ratcliffe have shared the 2019 Nobel Medicine Prize for discoveries on how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. Health24 quotes the Nobel Assembly as saying: “They established the basis for our understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological function. Their research has paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and many other diseases.”

The jury said the trio had identified molecular machinery that regulates the activity of genes in response to varying levels of oxygen, which is central to a large number of diseases.

The report says Kaelin works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US, while Semenza is director of the Vascular Research Programme at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering. Ratcliffe is director of clinical research at the Francis Crick Institute in London, and director of the Target Discovery Institute in Oxford.

The report says last year the honour went to immunologists James Allison of the US and Tasuku Honjo of Japan, for figuring out how to release the immune system’s brakes to allow it to attack cancer cells more efficiently.

Kaelin, Semenza and Ratcliffe received the award for discovering a molecular switch that regulates how cells adapt to fluctuating oxygen levels, opening up new approaches to treating heart failure, anaemia and cancer, reports Reuters Health. The scientists’ work established the basis for understanding of how oxygen levels are sensed by cells – a discovery that is being explored by medical researchers seeking to develop treatments for various diseases that work by either activating or blocking the body’s oxygen-sensing machinery.

Their work centres on the hypoxic response – the way the body reacts to oxygen flux – and “revealed the elegant mechanisms by which our cells sense oxygen levels and respond” said Andrew Murray, an expert at Britain’s University of Cambridge who congratulated the three.

“Oxygen is the vital ingredient for the survival of every cell in our bodies. Too little – or too much – can spell disaster. Understanding how evolution has equipped cells to detect and respond to fluctuating oxygen levels helps answer fundamental questions,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of Britain’s Royal Society scientific academy. “As (this) work shows us, it also gives insights into the way these processes continue to shape our health and wellbeing.”

Randall Johnson, a professor at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, is quoted in the report as saying that it was “a prize that really tells us the fundamental truth about how cells work”. During exercise, for example, the body uses oxygen at a rapid pace, “and this is a switch that helps the cell figure out how much oxygen it’s getting and how it should behave.”

“If you have a stroke there’s suddenly no oxygen going to the brain… Those cells, if they are going to survive, need to find a way to adapt to that level of oxygen,” he said.

Health24 report Reuters Health report

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