Nobel Prize for Medicine jointly awarded to Kaelin, Ratcliffe, Semenza

A portrait of the Swedish inventor and scholar Alfred Nobel on a banner at the Nobel Forum in Stockholm Sweden in October 2018

A portrait of the Swedish inventor and scholar Alfred Nobel on a banner at the Nobel Forum in Stockholm Sweden in October 2018

Canadian-American cosmologist James Peebles and Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz on Tuesday won the Nobel Physics Prize for research increasing our understanding of our place in the universe, the jury said.

Sir Peter Ratcliffe is based at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, William Kaelin, at Harvard in the U.S. and Gregg Semenza at John Hopkins University in the US.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee is responsible for selecting the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, with the winners chosen through a majority vote.

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". The importance of oxygen to life on Earth has been recognized for hundreds of years. "They established the basis for our understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological function. Their discoveries have forever changed our conceptions of the world".

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The researchers looked into how the body reacts to low oxygen-level environments, such as those found at high altitudes.

"It's great that the research on a very rare disorder such as von Hippel-Lindau disease was instrumental in providing the insights into something as fundamental as oxygen sensing. the observations that they've made are wonderful", he says.

Ratcliffe started as a doctor specializing in the kidney organ. Many cancers highjack the oxygen-sensing system to stimulate blood-vessel growth and make conditions right for the spread of cancer cells. "When cells are short of oxygen, as is the case with heart failure and lung disease, the tissues need to respond to that in order to maintain energy levels". "A lot of people came to the office after the phone call and we had some champagne", he said.

That broad potential is reflected in the pipeline of drugs targeting pathways related to the research.

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Kaelin is the third Duke alumnus to receive the Nobel Prize, according to the university.

"Were it not for the theoretical discoveries of James Peebles, the wonderful, high-precision measurements of the [cosmic background radiation] over the last 20 years would have told us nearly nothing", academy member Mats Larsson said.

The work began in the 1990s, when Semenza identified genes that turned on when oxygen levels were low to increase levels of erythropoietin (EPO), a protein that increases the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

"As with nearly any discovery science the impact of that becomes evident later".

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