2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for hypoxia discovery

Oct. 7, 2019

Gregg L. Semenza, MD, PhD, whose discoveries on how cells respond to low oxygen levels have the potential to result in treatments for a variety of illnesses, was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine by the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet. He shares the award with scientists William G. Kaelin, Jr., MD of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Peter J. Ratcliffe of Oxford University.

The academy recognized Semenza, the C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, for his groundbreaking discovery of hypoxia-inducible factor 1, or HIF-1, the protein that switches genes on and off in cells in response to low oxygen levels. The discovery, along with Semenza’s additional work clarifying the molecular mechanisms of oxygen regulation in cells, has far-reaching implications in understanding the impacts of low oxygen levels in blood disorders, blinding eye diseases, cancer, diabetes, coronary artery disease and other conditions.

Semenza’s studies currently are focused on the role of HIF-1 in cancer, ischemia and chronic lung disease, among the most common causes of mortality in the U.S. His research paves the way for the development of drugs that could kill cancer cells by cutting off the supply of oxygen a tumor needs to grow. Semenza’s work could also lead to medicines allowing tissues affected by conditions such as arterial disease to survive on low oxygen.

Semenza, a member of the Institute for Cell Engineering, the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, was born in New York City and is the first of five children. His love of science developed thanks to his biology teacher at Sleepy Hollow High School in Westchester County, New York. He attended Harvard University for his bachelor’s degree. While there, a family friend had a child born with Down syndrome, which inspired him to study pediatric genetics.

He got his MD/PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, studying the genetic disorder beta thalassemia. He later went to Duke University to complete his internship and residency in pediatrics. He moved to Johns Hopkins in 1986 for a postdoctoral fellowship in medical genetics; met his wife, Laura Kasch-Semenza; and has been here ever since. They have three children.

Semenza has authored more than 400 research articles and book chapters, which have been cited more than 130,000 times. He serves on the editorial boards of several scientific publications and is the deputy editor of The Journal of Clinical Investigation. He has received the American Heart Association Established Investigator Award, the American Cancer Society Research Professor Award, the Lefoulon-Delalande Grand Prize from the Institut de France, the Stanley J. Korsmeyer Award from the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, the Canada Gairdner International Award and the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. He is an elected member of the Society for Pediatric Research, American Society for Clinical Investigation, Association of American Physicians, National Academy of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences.

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