News from the scientific world

Who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2019?

Since this past Monday the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet assigned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, I will take another break from the posts about my university years and I will talk about the three scientists that will share the prize and their discoveries that made them Nobel Laureates.

The three scientists that will share the Nobel Prize discovered how the cells use oxygen and how different oxygen levels regulate fundamental physiological processes. This is a crucial mechanism to keep cells healthy and, knowing how this process works under physiological conditions, it opens new possibilities to better understand several diseases, such as anemia and tumors. But let’s go a bit more into the specifics of their discoveries before talking about the scientists and their actual positions.

They basically discovered the molecular mechanism that regulates the genes activity in response to the changing levels of oxygen. Indeed, oxygen is the fundamental element that allows every living being to convert food and nutrients in general into energy, not mentioning the fact that oxygen is crucial for basically all the physiological processes, from embryonal development to the immune response, and so on. The ability of cells to “sense” the environment that surrounds them allows cells to adapt, regulating their metabolism and all of their physiological processes.

The path that started this studies was first explored by the German physiologist Otto Warburg, who discovered that the oxygen is converted in energy via enzymatic reactions, thus becoming a Nobel Laureate in 1931. The next step was then the discovery of cells in the carotid artery that act as oxygen sensors, that allowed the Belgian physiologist Corneille Hermans to win the Nobel Prize in 1938.

Researches went on up until Semenza discovered another oxygen sensor, this time a gene called Epo, and its relationship with hypoxia. At the same time Ratcliffe was researching on Epo and the mechanisms that regulate its activity, discovering that this gene is present in all tissues. The race was then on and researchers were looking for the other main characters that help cells adapting to the different oxygen levels: again Semenza in 1995, studying the liver cells, found Hif, a factor that induces hypoxia. At least, but not at last, Kaelin discovered Vhl, a gene able to help tumor cells escape hypoxia, allowing them to survive and replicate in conditions that are usually deadly for normal cells. Further researches discovered the entire process that regulates the cellular response to the changing oxygen levels and, at the same time, it shed light on the possibility to control this complex mechanism to better understand physiological processes, such as metabolism, immune system, embryonal development, respiration and high altitude adaptation, but also to treat diseases like anemia, tumors, strokes and wound healing.

To end up this short, but I hope interesting post about the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine, I will briefly write about the three scientists that are going to be awarded with the Nobel prize (see picture below).

The three scientists that won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2019: William G. Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza. From nobelprize.org

Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, 65 years old, from Lancashire (UK), studied in Cambridge and then specialized in Nephrology in Oxford, where he created his research group and where he got a professor chair in 1996. Currently he directs the clinical research department of the Francis Crick Institute of London and he is member of the Ludwig Institute for cancer research.

Gregg L. Semenza, 63 years old, from New York, studied biology at Harvard University and then Pennsylvania University. He then specialized in Pediatry at the Duke University and from 1999 he is a professor of the John Hopkins University, where he also directs the research on blood vessels

William G. Kaelin, 62 years old, from New York, studied at Duke University and he then specialized in Internal Medicine and oncology at the John Hopkins University. From 2002 is a professor in Harvard.

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