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How cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability research lands British scientist share of Nobel Prize for Medicine © Nobel:PA

How cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability research lands British scientist share of Nobel Prize for Medicine

Published: 07th October, 2019 at 13:56
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Sir Peter Ratcliffe, from the Francis Crick Institute, and Americans Dr William G Kaelin Jr and Dr Gregg L Semenza will share the £738,000 cash award.

The 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been jointly awarded to three scientists, including a British professor.


Professor William Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter Ratcliffe and Professor Gregg L. Semenza received the award for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability, the Nobel Committee announced on Monday.

It is the 110th prize in the category that has been awarded since 1901.

The Karolinska Institutet said in a statement the trio should share equally the nine million kronor, around £736,000, cash award.

In statement the committee said: “Animals need oxygen for the conversion of food into useful energy.

“The fundamental importance of oxygen has been understood for centuries, but how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen has long been unknown.”

It added that the three men had identified molecular machinery that regulates the activity of genes in response to varying levels of oxygen.

The statement said: “The seminal discoveries by this year’s Nobel Laureates revealed the mechanism for one of life’s most essential adaptive processes.

“They established the basis for our understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological function.

“Their discoveries have also paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer and many other diseases.”

Who is Sir Peter Ratcliffe?

Sir Peter was born in 1954 in Lancashire, and he studied medicine at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University.

He did his specialist training in nephrology at Oxford, and established an independent research group at Oxford University and became a full professor in 1996.

Sir Peter is the director of clinical research at Francis Crick Institute, London, director for Target Discovery Institute in Oxford and Member of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.

Sir Peter has led the hypoxia biology laboratory at Oxford for more than 20 years.

The laboratory discovered the widespread operation of a system of direct oxygen sensing that is conserved throughout the animal kingdom and operates through a novel form of cell signalling involving post-translational hydroxylation of specific amino acids.

The Karolinska Institutet said of the discoveries: “Thanks to the groundbreaking work of these Nobel Laureates, we know much more about how different oxygen levels regulate fundamental physiological processes.

“Oxygen sensing allows cells to adapt their metabolism to low oxygen levels: for example, in our muscles during intense exercise.

“Other examples of adaptive processes controlled by oxygen sensing include the generation of new blood vessels and the production of red blood cells.

“Our immune system and many other physiological functions are also fine-tuned by the O2-sensing machinery.

“Oxygen sensing has even been shown to be essential during foetal development for controlling normal blood vessel formation and placenta development.”

The announcement kicks off Nobel week, with the Nobel physics prize is handed out on Tuesday and the the chemistry prize the following day.

Nobel glory this year comes with a nine million kronor cash award, a gold medal and a diploma, which the laureates receive at elegant ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on 10 December, the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896.


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Alexander McNamaraOnline Editor, BBC Science Focus

Alexander is the former Online Editor at BBC Science Focus.


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