A Day of Celebration for Nobel Winner Gregg Semenza

This article first appeared in DOME (September/October 2019)

Published in Fundamentals - Fundamentals October 2019

Gregg Semenza’s work week started a little before 4 a.m. on Monday with a phone call that most scientists can only imagine: The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, informed him that he was a co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“It woke me out of a deep sleep,” says Semenza, who actually missed the assembly’s first call and went back to sleep until the institute called back several minutes later.

“I’m pretty dazed,” he says as he settles into his office in the Miller Research Building around 8:30 a.m. “It’s really too much to think about.”

Semenza is the C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Genetic Medicine, Pediatrics, Radiation Oncology and Molecular Radiation Sciences, Biological Chemistry, Medicine and Oncology; and director of the Vascular Program at the Institute for Cell Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The academy recognized him 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.

As the new Nobel Laureate telephoned family members and gave news interviews, students and trainees offered congratulations and, in some cases, held back tears. They describe Semenza as a mentor who works hard and pushes them to be the best scientists they can be. His motivation, they say, is not prestigious prizes but rather opportunities to fight disease.

“When I think of my work with Dr. Semenza, what I find most admirable is that in his science he is seeking the truth,” says doctoral student Caroline Vissers. “He is a really rigorous scientist who spends a lot of time with every one of us in the lab,” says doctoral student Yiwei Ai.

“I’ve been expecting him to win, but I’m still speechless,” says postdoctoral student Shaima Salman, who has worked in the Semenza lab for about two years. 

Semenza’s discovery, along with his additional work clarifying the molecular mechanisms of oxygen regulation in cells, has far-reaching implications in understanding the impact of low oxygen levels in blood disorders, blinding eye diseases, cancer, diabetes, coronary artery disease and other conditions. His research has led to clinical trials for people with kidney cancer and kidney disease.

He shares the award with scientists William G. Kaelin Jr. of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Peter J. Ratcliffe of Oxford University. Kaelin did his residency in internal medicine at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, including a year as chief resident.

“I started out asking a really defined question,” says Semenza. “How does the body control red blood cell production? And now we know that this is a major mechanism for adaptation to low oxygen.”

Doctoral student Caroline Vissers writing congratulatory message

Doctoral Student Caroline Vissers shares a message from the research team.

One of His First Calls Was to His Mother

He says he could never have achieved such success without mentors, including his late high school biology teacher Rose Nelson of Sleepy Hollow High School in New York.

One of his first calls was to his mother, an educator who instilled a love of research and learning, he says. “Well, thanks, Mom,” he says into the phone. “It’s for you too. December 10, Mom. You have to keep your calendar open.”

As he disconnects, he glances at his phone. “Yikes. Two hundred and seventy-six emails.” They would continue to pile up throughout the day.

Well-wishers included Peter Agre, a fellow Nobel Laureate, who stopped by the office to congratulate Semenza in person. “I’ve been looking forward to this day,” Agre says. “This is great for Hopkins. All this work was done right here.”

Semenza says that his colleagues at Johns Hopkins have helped him in a number of important ways. In May, he fell down the stairs in his home and broke several vertebrae in his neck. Fortunately, he says, he received expert care from Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ali Bydon and has recovered.

“That’s why I stayed here my whole career,” he says during a press conference. “There is always someone on the faculty or staff to help me. This is the greatest place to do research, with the greatest colleagues, and the greatest sense of collegiality.”  

A Nobel Prize can divide a person’s life into “before” and “after.” But the Johns Hopkins professor doesn’t expect the honor to change him or his devotion to research.

“I always said ‘I like my life just the way it is,’ I don’t foresee any major changes,” he tells members of his lab as they toasted him with plastic cups of champagne. “My message for everyone training today is I was once where you are now, and you will one day be where I am.  We are very lucky to have this career where we get to follow our interests wherever they may lead.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine 2019 Nobel Prize Celebrations | Gregg Semenza

About Gregg Semenza

Gregg Semenza, 63, 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.  

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 M.D./Ph.D. 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.