Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine Discovered How Cells Control Oxygen

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07 October, 2019

Two American and one British scientist have won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discovering how cells react to changing levels of oxygen.

Doctors William Kaelin

Jr. of Harvard University in Massachusetts, Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and Sir Peter Ratcliffe of Oxford University will share this year's prize.

The Nobel committee praised the work of the three men saying it "greatly expanded our knowledge of how physiological response makes life possible."

The scientists studied the process of how cells control oxygen in the body. The importance of oxygen to life on Earth has been recognized for hundreds of years. But, before the research of the three laureates, much less was understood about how cells react to changes in oxygen levels.

Kaelin, Ratcliff and Semenza each made discoveries that led to the understanding of how individual cells sense and make chemical changes related to the levels of available oxygen.

Doctor Randall Johnson of the Nobel Committee described this chemical change as a "molecular switch."

"The amount of oxygen available to cells, tissues and animals themselves, can vary greatly. This prize is for three physician scientists who found the molecular switch that regulates how our cells adapt when oxygen levels drop."

The researchers found there is a genetic link to how cells sense if they are receiving too little oxygen and what they do as a result. The process has great importance in how disease develops in the body.

For, example cancer uses the oxygen reaction of other cells to drive the formation of new blood vessels that help the cancer grow.

From the kidney to the rest of the body

Ratcliffe started as a doctor specializing in the kidney organ. His research began in 1990 when he and his colleagues wanted to find out how kidney cells sense oxygen.

After two years, he realized that what he was finding out about cells and oxygen had a much wider importance.

"We saw that it wasn't just cells in the kidney that know how to sense oxygen, but all cells in the body," Ratcliffe said.

He said that some useful drugs have been developed from the research. But he added that it will be years before these discoveries can help the lives of thousands of people.

Ratcliffe described this year's other Nobel winners as "colleagues, competitors and friends." He said he felt honored by the prize but that his main goal has been making scientific discoveries.

"The satisfaction is really finding things out that will continue to be true for all time," he said.

Semenza studied a gene that is responsible for a hormone, known as EPO, which controls red blood cell production.

The discovery has led to treatments for people with kidney disease and who become anemic when their kidneys stop producing EPO.

"Now, drugs can turn on EPO production...," he said.

Semenza said it is likely one or more of these drugs will be approved in the next few years. He said one has already been approved in China.

Andrew Murray of Cambridge University said the three Nobel laureates' work is important for treating diseases of the heart, lungs and some cancers.

"The work they have done is already leading the way to drugs that manipulate oxygen-sensing pathways," said Murray.

The three will equally share the prize worth about $918,000.

Asked how he would spend the money, Kaelin said he did not know yet, but that he would "try to put it to some good cause."

The researchers will receive the award in a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10. That is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel in 1896.

The Swedish industrialist set up the prizes to recognize important work in the arts, sciences and in supporting peace.

I'm Mario Ritter Jr.

Mario Ritter Jr. adapted this story from reports by AP and Reuters for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

physiological –adj. the science dealing with how living things operate

vary –v. to be different or to become different
physician –n. a medical doctor

anemia –n. medical a condition in which a person has fewer red blood cells than normal and feels very weak and tired

regulate –v. to control how something works

adapt –v. a change to behavior that makes it easier to live or produce something

colleague –n. a person you work with

manipulate –v. to be able to control and change as needed

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