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2019 Nobel Prize winner: Understand the discovery that led to the prize

by Ace Damon
2019 Nobel Prize winner: Understand the discovery that led to the prize

The work of three researchers helped to understand how body cells adapt to the amount of oxygen in the environment.

By Rafael Battaglia

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Oct 7, 2019, 7:41 pm – Posted Oct 7, 2019, 7:36 pm

(The Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine. Illustrator: Mattias Karlén / Press Release)

The winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Medicine were announced on Monday (7). They are: William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza, from the USA, and Sir Peter Ratcliffe, from the United Kingdom. The award was given for his discoveries on how our body cells perceive and adapt to the available oxygen levels in the environment.

The three researchers have done their work individually since the 1990s. Together, their research describes an important physiological mechanism – the hypoxic response of cells – essential for individuals to survive in higher places where there is lower oxygen concentration.

In addition to uncovering how this mechanism works, Nobel organizers stressed the importance of discoveries for future medical applications. According to official announcement"Their findings also paved the way for promising new strategies to combat anemia, cancer and many other diseases."

What the researchers found

To understand the functioning of the hypoxic response mechanism, we need to remember how oxygen is transported in the human body.

Upon entering the respiratory system, oxygen goes to the hemoglobins, which carry it through the bloodstream to the rest of our tissues. Oxygen is one of the main fuels of cellular respiration, a process that happens inside cells that provides energy for the vital functions of the body.

Within the cells, mitochondria are responsible for this. Remember the high school classes? Yeah. With the exception of some bacteria and fungi, oxygen is indispensable for cell metabolism (the chemical transformations that release energy).

When you are in an oxygen-depleted environment (mountainous regions, for example), the body soon begins to produce more hemoglobin – the more red cells working, the more oxygen available. When this happens, the body also regulates the metabolic activity of cells to adapt to the new scenario.

Science has known this since the 20th century, but the details of how this system works at the molecular level was still a mystery. And that's where the work of scientists comes in.

BREAKING NEWS:
The 2019 #NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine has been jointly awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza “for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.” pic.twitter.com/6m2LJclOoL

– The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 7, 2019

Gregg Semenza, a professor at John Hopkins University, identified a protein complex and named it HIF – which stands for “hypoxia-inducible factor” (“hypoxia” means “low oxygen concentration”). HIF is quickly destroyed by the body in a normal situation. When the oxygen level is low, however, its concentration increases.

Bringing together the work of Peter Ratcliffe, who works at Oxford University and the Francis Crick Institute, and William Kaelin, who teaches at Harvard University, scientists have found that HIF causes this gene to increase the production of a hormone called erythropoietin. (EPO), which in turn increases the amount of red cells that carry oxygen.

How important is this discovery

Understanding this mechanism may help in the development of new treatments in the future for problems such as anemia, cancer and other diseases.

In China, for example, an anemia drug is already on the sale. Roxadustat takes advantage of HIF to trick the body into thinking it is at high altitude by stimulating the production of hemoglobins. At present, the remedy is regulated to enter the European market.

The Nobel is not the first major achievement of the trio of scientists. In 2016, they have won the Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research – an important prize that often sings the ball of who will be the next Nobel Prize winners.

The official ceremony with the winners of this and other Nobel laureates takes place on December 10th, and the three scientists will equally share the sum of 9 million SEK (approximately R $ 3.7 million).

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