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3 Scientists Win Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine

Oct 7, 2019
Originally published on October 7, 2019 10:53 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's hear it for oxygen - that is the subject of this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Three scientists are going to share the award for their work in understanding how our bodies regulate the use of this vital molecule. Here is the announcement from Stockholm this morning.

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THOMAS PERLMANN: The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute has today decided to award the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to William Kaelin, Sir Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg Semenza.

GREENE: All right, let's talk about this announcement with NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: I'm all for oxygen. I think we're all in favor of oxygen.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: I agree.

GREENE: Yeah.

HARRIS: Two thumbs up for oxygen.

GREENE: Yeah, exactly. Well, so first things first, who won here?

HARRIS: OK. The prize this year is split three ways. One third goes to William Kaelin, who is a Howard Hughes investigator at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard. He was born in 1957 in New York City. A third of it also goes to Gregg Semenza, who is at Johns Hopkins University. He was born in 1956 and is also a native-born New Yorker. And the third third goes to Sir Peter Ratcliffe, who was born in the U.K. and is at Oxford University. And I should mention all three are physicians as well as scientists.

GREENE: Who know a thing or two about oxygen. And it sounds like the prize is specifically about how our bodies use it, right?

HARRIS: That's right. Obviously, we can't live without it.

GREENE: True.

HARRIS: But it's also true that too much oxygen can also be harmful. So our bodies have developed mechanisms to make sure that the cells take up just the right amount of oxygen, and this actually can be tricky. Here's Randall Johnson from the University of Cambridge, and he gave this little explanation this morning during the Nobel Prize announcement.

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RANDALL JOHNSON: Just as a candle needs the right amount of oxygen to burn cleanly, cells need to adjust their metabolic rates based on how much oxygen they have available to them.

HARRIS: So for example, when you go to higher elevation, you've probably noticed that you could struggle for breath when you exert yourself at first.

GREENE: Yeah, definitely.

HARRIS: Yeah. But gradually, your body adapts, right? And it does that using a mechanism that increases oxygen availability to your cells. Of course, if this oxygen control system goes awry, you can be anemic - low blood oxygen and low iron as well, which is one of the carriers of oxygen in the blood. And likewise, certain cancers are sensitive to oxygen levels, and they play a role in this story as well.

GREENE: So much of this stuff sounds like stuff that we've talked about in the past. So what is new? What did these scientists actually discover here?

HARRIS: Well, you're right. Absolutely. Researchers have long ago figured out and homed in on how our bodies sense oxygen and how it just - for example, how fast we breathe to help moderate the amount of oxygen we take into our lungs. But this explanation really gets down to what happens at a genetic level. And Gregg Semenza and Peter Ratcliffe were both focused on the genes of a hormone called erythropoietin, or EPO. And it turns out that this gene is turned up or turned down based on the amount of oxygen levels in the body.

So Semenza figured out the details of exactly how that mechanism works, which he published back in 1995. It turns out that's more or less what you could call sort of the master switch for regulating oxygen.

GREENE: You mentioned cancer playing a role in the story. What exactly is the role of cancer here?

HARRIS: Well, William Kaelin is the cancer researcher in this group, and he was studying a condition called von Hippel-Lindau disease, which dramatically increases a person's risk of getting cancer. And as he explored the genetics of this disease, he discovered a particular gene that actually inhibits cancer development in people with this disease. And as it turns out - yes, you guessed it - that gene is also tied into the other oxygen regulating genes.

GREENE: All right. Interesting stuff. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris for us this morning. Thanks, Richard.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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