Science

3 Win Nobel Prize for Showing How Cells Sense Low Oxygen

NEW YORK—Two Americans and a British scientist won a Nobel Prize on Oct. 7 for discovering details of how the bodys cells sense and react to low oxygen levels, providing a foothold for developing new treatments for anemia, cancer, and other diseases.

Drs. William G. Kaelin Jr. of Harvard University, Gregg L. Semenza of Johns Hopkins University and Peter J. Ratcliffe at the Francis Crick Institute in Britain and Oxford University won the prize for advances in physiology or medicine.

The scientists, who worked largely independently, will share the 9 million kronor ($918,000) cash award, said the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

They “revealed the mechanism for one of lifes most essential adaptive processes,” the Nobel committee said.

Cells can encounter lowered oxygen not only from situations like living at high altitudes, but also from things like a wound that interferes with local blood supply. Their response triggers reactions that include producing red blood cells, generating new blood vessels and fine-tuning the immune system.

The Nobel committee said scientists are focused on developing drugs that can treat diseases by either activating or suppressing the oxygen-sensing machinery. Such manipulation could help in attacking cancer cells, experts said.

Another payoff is pills to boost the production of red blood cells in anemia, which can appear in people with chronic kidney disease. One such drug has been approved in China and Japan and a filing for approval in the U.S. is expected soon, Kaelin said.

Still other potential targets include heart attack and stroke, and a condition of reduced blood flow in the limbs that can lead to amputation, the researchers said.

Kaelin, 61, said he was half-asleep when the phone rang early Oct. 7 with the news of his award.

“I dont usually get phone calls at 5:00 in the morning, so, naturally, my heart started racing and I could see the call was from Stockholm,” he said. “And so I think at that point I almost had an out-of-body type of experience.”

Kaelin is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports APs Health and Science department.

Ratcliffe, 65, said he learned the news after he was summoned out of a meeting this morning by his secretary, who had “a look of urgency.”

Trained as a kidney specialist, Ratcliffe said his research began when he and colleagues simply wanted to figure out how cells sense oxygen.

“I thought it was a definable problem and just thought wed find out how it worked,” he said. It was about two years into their research program, which began in 1990, that they realized the discovery had much wider significance, Ratcliffe said.

“We saw that it wasnt just cells in the kidney that know how to sense oxygen, but all cells in the body. … There are hundreds and thousands of processes the body uses to adapt to and regulate its oxygen levels.”

He said while some promising drugs have been developed, it will be years before its clear whether such discoveries are going to change the lives of tens of thousands.

In Baltimore, Semenza, 63, said he slept through the Nobel committees initial phone call. “By the time I got to the phone it was too late,” he said. He went back to sleep but was able to answer the second call from Stockholm.

He said kidney cancer may be the first malignancy in which a drug based on the prize-winning work might make chemotherapy more effective, and that he hopes many other cancers will follow.

Speaking at a news conference at Johns Hopkins Universitys School of Medicine, Semenza paid tribute to his biology teacher, Rose Nelson, at Sleepy Hollow High School in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., for inspiring his pursuit of medicine.

“She used to say, Now when you win your Nobel Prize, I dont want you to forget that you learned that here,'” he said. “Its my great sadness that she is not still alive to share thRead More – Source

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