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Trio wins Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work on cell metabolism

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Three scientists who studied how cells sense and adapt to oxygen levels have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — the first recipients of prestigious awards for 2019. 

William G. Kaelin, Jr., of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard University, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, of Oxford University and the Francis Crick Institute, and Gregg L. Semenza, of Johns Hopkins University were jointly awarded the prize.

"The seminal discoveries by this year's Nobel laureates revealed the mechanism for one of life's most essential adaptive processes," the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said.

The three physicians "found the molecular switch that regulates how our cells adapt when oxygen levels drop," Randall Johnson, a member of the committee,  said.  

"Cells and tissues are constantly experiencing changes in oxygen availability," Johnson said. "As an embryo grows and develops, as muscles work, the oxygen available changes as the tissues themselves change. Cells need a way to adjust to the amount of oxygen they have, while still doing their important jobs."

The committee said that the discoveries are of fundamental importance for physiology and could blaze the trail for new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and many other diseases.

Kaelin was born in New York and received an M.D. from Duke University. He did his specialist training in internal medicine and oncology at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, and at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston.

Ratcliffe was born in Lancashire, United Kingdom, and studied medicine at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University and did his specialist training in nephrology at Oxford. He is the director of clinical research at the Francis Crick Institute in London, the director of the Target Discovery Institute in Oxford and a member of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.

Semenza was born in New York. He obtained a B.A. in biology from Harvard and his M.D./Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine. He did his specialist training in pediatrics at Duke University. He is the director of the Vascular Research Program at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering.  

The prize of 9 million Swedish crowns ($913,000) will be shared equally by the three winners.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.