Johns Hopkins scientist wins Nobel Prize for Medicine for discoveries in oxygen that could help treat cancer, other diseases

Thomas Perlmann, far right, Secretary-General of the Nobel Committee announces the 2019 Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine during a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, Monday Oct. 7, 2019. The prize has been awarded to scientists, from left on the screen, Gregg L. Semenza, Peter J. Ratcliffe and William G. Kaelin Jr. for their discoveries of "how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability."
Thomas Perlmann, far right, Secretary-General of the Nobel Committee announces the 2019 Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine during a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, Monday Oct. 7, 2019. The prize has been awarded to scientists, from left on the screen, Gregg L. Semenza, Peter J. Ratcliffe and William G. Kaelin Jr. for their discoveries of "how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability." (Pontus Lundahl / TT)

A Johns Hopkins University professor was one of three medical doctors awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine on Monday for discoveries in how the body reacts to changes in oxygen levels, work that already is being adapted to treat cancer.

The discoveries also could help doctors eventually treat anemia, heart and lung disease, exercise-related problems and a host of other maladies.


Dr. Gregg L. Semenza, a professor of medicine, has spent his career at Hopkins, where 28 people associated with the university have been awarded Nobel prizes — the last one going to Adam Reiss, a professor of physics and astronomy, in 2011.

During a midday news conference, Semenza, who was interrupted several times by standing ovations from students and staff, said he was looking forward to many new drugs being developed from the research.


“There are some clear applications,” he said. “But research is a process that occurs in some leaps and bounds, but mostly in small steps. And particularly when developing new therapies the road is a tough one.”

He said he most hoped his work would benefit those with cancer.

Semenza, 63, said existing chemotherapy drugs wipe out cancerous tumors that use a lot of oxygen to grow. But new drugs based on his work could target cancer cells that use little oxygen and linger after chemo only to spread and kill patients later.

“Once the cancer has metastasized, there aren’t effective therapies,” he said. With new drugs, “the hope is that improves outcomes."


A kidney cancer treatment, developed using his research, is being tested in people, he said.

The other winners of the shared Nobel, are another American doctor and a British physician scientist. The scientists were awarded for their independent work, though Semenza said they occasionally collaborated.

The other winners are Dr. William G. Kaelin Jr. of Harvard University and Dr. Peter J. Ratcliffe at the Francis Crick Institute in Britain. Kaelin was a postdoctoral fellow and resident in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins from 1983 to 1987.

The three will share equally the $918,000 cash award. It is the 110th prize in the category that has been awarded since 1901.

In announcing the prize, the Nobel Committee of the Karolinska Institute said the work by the three laureates has “greatly expanded our knowledge of how physiological response makes life possible.” It said Semenza, Ratcliffe and Kaelin found “the molecular switch for how to adapt” when oxygen levels in the body vary, noting that the most fundamental job for cells is to convert oxygen to food and that cells and tissues constantly experience changes in oxygen availability.

The prize was specifically related to Semenza’s work on a protein called hypoxia-inducible factor 1, or HIF-1, that switches genes on and off in cells in response to low oxygen levels.

Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels illustrated the significance for those who couldn’t keep up with that science: “Hold your breath for 20 seconds and you know right away how important oxygen is.”

Thomas Perlmann, the secretary of the Nobel Committee, said he was able to reach all three laureates by phone Monday. But he only got Kaelin via his sister, who gave him two phone numbers, and the first one was a wrong number.

Semenza said he slept through the first call and was then stunned silent when he managed to answer the second call sometime after 4 a.m.

Bridget Lumb, president of The Physiological Society based in the United Kingdom, said in a statement that the prize “shines a light” on vital research.

“Cutting edge physiological research such as this is improving our understanding of how our bodies work and thereby helping keep us healthy," she said. “Thanks to this research, we know much more about how different levels of oxygen impact on physiological processes in our bodies.

"This has huge implications for everything from recovery from injury and protection from disease, through to improving exercise performance,” Lumb said.

The announcement Monday kicked off Nobel week. The Nobel Physics prize will be awarded Tuesday, and the following day is the chemistry prize.

This year’s double-header Literature Prizes — one each for 2018 and 2019 — will be awarded Thursday, and the Peace Prize will be announced on Friday.

The economics prize will be awarded Oct. 14.

The 2018 literature prize was suspended after a sexual assault scandal rocked the Swedish Academy last year. The body plans to award it this year, along with announcing the 2019 laureate.

Prize founder Alfred Nobel — a Swedish industrialist and the inventor of dynamite — decided the physics, chemistry, medicine and literature prizes should be awarded in Stockholm, and the peace prize in Oslo.

He specifically designated the institutions responsible for the prizes: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry; the Karolinska Institute is responsible for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; the Swedish Academy picks the Nobel Prize in Literature; and a committee of five people elected by the Norwegian Parliament decides who wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

The economics prize — officially known as the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel — wasn’t created by Nobel, but by Riksbanken, Sweden’s central bank, in 1968. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was tasked with selecting that winner.

Nobel glory this year comes with a 9-million kronor ($918,000) cash award, a gold medal and a diploma. The laureates receive them at elegant ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on Dec. 10 — the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896.

At Hopkins, Semenza said he was pleased to have the support of Hopkins administration to do basic research that does not have a predictable result. He also said many other Hopkins scientists and students had contributed to the work over the years.

He also gave a nod to the Hopkins neurosugeon who repaired his broken neck in May. Semenza said he fell down the stairs in his home late one night and was taken immediately to Hopkins for treatment.

Daniels said Semenza’s biology teacher at Sleepy Hollow High School in Westchester County, N.Y., sparked the future Nobel Prize winner’s interest in science. The teacher once told her students not to forget where they learned science when they won a Nobel.

Semenza said the teacher, Rose Nelson, gave her students a respect for research. Nelson is deceased.

Semenza earned a bacherlor’s degree at Harvard University and his medical degree and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He later went to Duke University for an internship and residency in pediatrics. He arrived at Hopkins in 1986 for a postdoctoral fellowship in medical genetics and later became faculty.

He’s a member of the Institute for Cell Engineering, the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

He lives in Baltimore County and is married to Laura Kasch-Semenza and has three children.


The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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