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EU-funded scientist among Nobel Prize winners in Physiology or Medicine

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2019 has been awarded jointly 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.

The Nobel laureates’ discoveries increase our understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological function. This paves the way for new ways to fight anemia, cancer and other diseases.

Carlos Moedas, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said:  "I warmly congratulate William G. Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza on their achievement.  I am proud to say that EU funding has supported one of this year’s Nobel Prize laureates to gain insights into how cells adapt to changes in oxygen levels, which is key to fighting a large number of diseases facing our society.”

Representing the University of Oxford, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe participated in the EU-funded EUROXY project, which was targeting oxygen-sensing cascades for novel cancer treatments. The collaborative project received €8 million from the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for science and research (FP6). The project focused on identifying adaptive pathways of cancer cells and disrupting such mechanisms as a way to eradicate cancer. The findings of this project have therefore contributed greatly to later research into how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. An example is the EU-funded project METOXIA, in which scientists demonstrated that variations in tumour-oxygenation influences metastasis and response to therapy.

In 2008, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe was awarded an ERC Advanced Grant, together with Christopher J. Schofield. The goal of their project was to study proteins involved in oxygen sensing in cells, namely hypoxia inducible factor (HIF) hydroxylases. With the ERC grant, they undertook an ambitious interdisciplinary programme of work into the chemistry, physiology and therapeutics of how cells sense and signal hypoxia or low levels of oxygen. The project succeeded in providing a detailed structural and chemical characterisation of human hydroxylase enzymes, and also led to the development of inhibitors of these enzymes. Modulating how cells respond to hypoxia could, in the future, be of therapeutic use in ischaemic disease and cancer.

Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe is the Director of Clinical Research at Francis Crick Institute, London, Director for Target Discovery Institute in Oxford and Member of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. William G. Kaelin, Jr. is a full professor at Harvard Medical School and has been an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute since 1998. Gregg L. Semenza is the Director of the Vascular Research Program at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering.

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