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Oxygen-Sensing Trio Wins Nobel

A trio of researchers has won this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for their work on how cells determine and react to changing oxygen levels, the Guardian reports.

The researchers — William Kaelin from Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard University, Peter Ratcliffe from Oxford University and the Francis Crick Institute, and Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University — independently worked to tease out aspects of the body's oxygen-sensing machinery, the Nobel committee notes.

As Vox adds, Semenza studied the EPO gene, which encodes the hormone erythropoietin, the expression of which increases during hypoxia to boost erythropoiesis, to find that nearby DNA segments regulate its expression. Ratcliffe similarly studied the oxygen-dependent regulation of the EPO gene and they both found this oxygen-sensing mechanism to be widespread. Semenza later uncovered the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) protein complex that mediates this response.

At the same time, Kaelin was studying von Hippel-Lindau's disease, an inherited cancer syndrome, and he found that cancer cells lacking the VHL gene expressed hypoxia-linked genes at high levels, suggesting VHL was also involved in mediating the body's response to oxygen levels.

"Oxygen is the vital ingredient for the survival of every cell in our bodies," Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, tells the Guardian. "Too little – or too much — can spell disaster. Understanding how evolution has equipped cells to detect and respond to fluctuating oxygen levels helps answer fundamental questions about how animal life emerged."

The researchers' findings are also influencing academic and pharmaceutical research into drugs that can alter this oxygen-sensing machinery to influence disease states, the Nobel committee adds.