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Gregg L. Semenza, M.D., Ph.D. is the winner of the 2016 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, America's top and most prestigious biomedical research prize.
Gregg L. Semenza, M.D., Ph.D. is the winner of the 2016 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, America's top and most prestigious biomedical research prize. (Courtesy Jay Van Rensselaer / Handout photo)

A Johns Hopkins doctor who was part of a three-person team to figure out how the body maintains adequate oxygen levels at the cellular level, a process crucial for survival, has won a medical award seen as a steppingstone to the Nobel Prize.

Dr. Gregg L. Semenza, director of vascular programs at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering, is one of among seven recipients of the Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards to be announced today.

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Eighty-eight Lasker recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

The Lasker prize was created by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation in 1946 and is regarded as one of the most important biomedical science honors. It comes with a $250,000 prize and will be awarded Sept. 23 in New York.

"The work of this year's honorees epitomizes the power and impact of dedication to rigorous and innovative medical research," Claire Pomeroy, president of the Lasker Foundation, said in a statement. "These outstanding advances have illuminated fundamental aspects of life, developed a cure for a deadly disease, and raised public engagement with science. The innovative and highly original achievements of these scientists highlight the critical importance of sustained support for biomedical research in attaining a healthier future for all."

The foundation awarded seven prizes in three categories: basic medical research, clinical medical research and special achievement.

Semenza, 60, won the basic medical research award along with William G. Kaelin Jr. of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School and Peter J. Ratcliffe at the University of Oxford Francis Crick Institute for their work on cellular oxygen levels.

Their work has the potential to lead to new treatments for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other common diseases.

Oxygen is needed to extract energy from food, but too much or too little can cause problems. Over time, the body has learned how to maintain the right balance of oxygen.

Semenza discovered a protein, HIF-1, that turns on certain genes in response to low levels of oxygen. His breakthrough came in the 1990s when he found that the protein activates genes as a defense against low oxygen levels. For instance, the protein can activate a gene that plays a key role in the development of blood vessels.

The protein could one day be used to treat people with cardiovascular disease who suffer from low oxygen levels because of clogged arteries. It also could be used in cases of diabetes, where vessels in the legs can become blocked, leading to a loss of circulation and, in the worst cases, gangrene, which can lead to amputation.

Semenza continues to do further testing on HIF-1, including research on how it can be used to treat deadly triple-negative breast cancer.

"HIF-1 is matching supply and demand so the right amount of oxygen gets to the cell — not too little, not too much," said Semenza, who is also the C. Michael Armstrong professor of genetic medicine, pediatrics, medicine, oncology, radiation oncology, and biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Semenza doesn't know who nominated him for the award. He was completely surprised when the head of the selection committee notified him of his win several weeks ago.

He said he doesn't do the work for rewards.

"All of this stuff is very nice, but I don't worry about things that are out of my control," he said.

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The dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine said Semenza has a knack for asking the not-so-obvious question.

"He is really able to ask the fundamental question, get the discovery and understand the implication of that on human disease," said Dr. Paul B. Rothman, also vice president for medicine of the Johns Hopkins University and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The other winners are Ralf F.W. Bartenschlager at University Hospital Heidelberg in Germany, Charles M. Rice of The Rockefeller University in New York, and Michael J. Sofia of Arbutus Biopharma Corp. in Doylestown, Pa., for clinical research; and Bruce M. Alberts of the University of California, San Francisco for special achievement.

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