STOCKHOLM: Dr. Gregg Semenza, a top researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says he was awakened by a call from Stockholm shortly before 4 a.m. with the good news that he is one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.
He’s been too barraged by phone calls ever since to even think about how to spend his share of the award money.
Semenza and two others are being honored for research into how genes respond to varying levels of oxygen. Semenza said his team was studying a rare kidney cell type years ago when they discovered that the same phenomenon happens throughout the body. It has such widespread physiological importance that it has opened up many possible avenues for more research and treatments for everything from anemia to cancer to diabetes and heart disease.
Researchers have since learned how to switch on and off genes that can increase or decrease oxygen levels. By doing this, they can kill a cancer cell, or stimulate blood vessel growth in heart patients. People with chronic kidney disease can get injections to increase their oxygen levels. And drugs are in development in pill form to turn on red blood cell production. Semenza expects some to reach the market in the next few years.
Now that DNA sequencing is possible, Semenza said they’ve learned that the phenomenon they once discovered in a rare kidney cell is evident throughout the genomes of people who have adapted to low-oxygen environments, such as Tibetans who live at high altitude. Semenza says this shows that some genetic changes can occur spontaneously as the human body adapts.