The life-saving science behind the 2019 Nobel Prize for Medicine

The life-saving science behind the 2019 Nobel Prize for Medicine

- in Science
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The scientific discoveries that earned a trio of researchers the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday are fueling the development of new treatments for potentially deadly conditions including cancer, heart attack and stroke.

Two Americans and a Briton will share the 9-million kronor ($918,000) prize for discoveries that provide a better understanding of the way the human body senses and adapts to varying levels of oxygen. Scientists have long known that oxygen is an essential ingredient for human life, but the discoveries provide new insights into the way our cells respond to changes in oxygen levels.

“This is about the process in our cells that allow them to sense oxygen and determine what to do depending on whether they are getting enough,” said Joan Massagué, director of the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York City. “When oxygen levels are too low, cells know that they have to take emergency measures to adapt their metabolism or adapt their behavior” — for example, making more red blood cells or generating new blood vessels, a process known as angiogenesis.

William G. Kaelin Jr. was one of the recipients of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Kaelin holds a 3D protein model at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston on Oct. 7, 2019.Scott Eisen / Getty Images

Experts say the discoveries were integral to the development of so-called angiogenesis blockers like Avastin (bevacizumab), which treat cancer by blocking tumor cells’ ability to trigger the growth of new blood vessels they need to obtain oxygen and nutrients.

Angiogenesis blockers are used to treat a variety of cancers, including malignancies of the brain, kidney, lung and colon. In many cases, the drugs are used in combination with other treatments, including chemotherapy.

“For cancer, a single bullet is not going to be enough — it requires combining various approaches,” Massagué said. “If we can suppress the ability of cancer cells to procure oxygen, it gives us another flank to attack cancer.”

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