Physician-scientist Gregg Semenza received the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering how the body's cells sense and react to low oxygen levels. This discovery may lead to treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Semenza shares the award with William G. Kaelin Jr., of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Peter J. Ratcliffe of Oxford University.
It all begins with oxygen. This life-supporting element is critical for every cell in the body to make energy, which powers a hundred trillion cells to work together in the body. However, under a number of circumstances, including some diseases, cells in the body must respond to reductions in the amount of oxygen they are exposed to.
For example, when exposed to low levels of oxygen, cells in the kidney trigger synthesis of more red blood cells, and cancer cells survive and multiply in an environment that has low oxygen levels when other types of cells do not. Semenza and others set out to understand why these events happen.
What Semenza discovered was a protein called hypoxia-inducible factor 1, or HIF-1. This protein guides the way cells sense and adapt to low oxygen.
How the Discovery Helps People
Semenza and other researchers want to apply the understanding of how HIF-1 works to development of new treatments for diseases. With some diseases, researchers are studying if HIF-1 can help stop diseased cells, such as cancer, from surviving in low oxygen environments. In other cases, such as kidney disease, researchers are testing if HIF-related treatments may be used to treat a complication of kidney disease called anemia, which causes the body to produce too few oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Such treatments could encourage red blood cells to grow, bringing life-sustaining oxygen to cells in the body.
In addition to cancer and kidney disease, this discovery of HIF-1 has the potential to result in treatments for diseases such as blood disorders, blinding eye diseases, coronary artery disease and other conditions.
Research: A Dream Job
From Nobel Laureates within the School of Medicine to the students they inspire, hear why research continues to excite them.
It’s a dream job because we’re able to follow our interests and our ideas, be creative, design experiments to test hypotheses, and ultimately, if we’re really lucky, to apply what we’ve learned to clinical problems.
- Gregg Semenza, Nobel Laureate
They say you can get used to anything given enough time. Yet, I still haven’t gotten over my awe of sharing the halls of Johns Hopkins with Nobel Laureates.
- Kyla Britson, Ph.D. candidate in cellular and molecular medicine
It’s been great to have this freedom to pursue this curiosity-driven science because that’s what I like to do, I like to follow the next most interesting thing that is there, rather than having a particular grand plan, and that’s what’s been particularly exciting.
- Carol Greider, Nobel Laureate
Our Nobel Legacy Johns Hopkins and the Nobel Prize
Considered the most prestigious science award in the world, the Nobel Prize has been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics and peace since 1901. By pushing the boundaries of discovery and innovation, several of our distinguished School of Medicine faculty members have been recipients of this prestigious award.
29 Nobel laureates affiliated with Johns Hopkins
16 Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine
4 Nobel laureates currently at Johns Hopkins
Learn more about Johns Hopkins and the Nobel Prize
More about Dr. Semenza
- Dr. Semenza's Bio Page
- PNAS Profile: Dr. Semenza
- The McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine
- The Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering
Awards and Achievements
- Gregg Semenza Awarded RPB Sybil B. Harrington Innovation Award for Macular Degeneration (2018)
- Gregg Semenza Wins Lasker Award for Insights into How Cells Sense Oxygen (2016)
- Johns Hopkins Researcher Awarded Prestigious Wiley Prize In Biomedical Sciences (2014)
- Johns Hopkins Scientists Elected into Institute of Medicine (2012)
- Gregg Semenza Awarded the Lefoulon-Delalande Grand Prize (2012)
- Gregg Semenza Receives American Society for Clinical Investigation Award (2012)
- Gregg Semenza is named the first Redox Pioneer (2010)
- Johns Hopkins Professors Elected to National Academy of Sciences (2008)
Related Articles and Press Releases
- An Evening with Nobel Laureate Gregg Semenza (2019)
- How Cancer Stem Cells Thrive When Oxygen is Scarce (2016)
- Cell's Recycling Center Implicated in Division Decisions (2014)
- Signals Found That Recruit Host Animals’ Cells, Enabling Breast Cancer Metastasis (2014)
- Rock And Rho: Proteins That Help Cancer Cells Groove (2013)
- Flipping the 'Off' Switch on Cell Growth (2013)
- Researchers Link New Molecular Culprit to Breast Cancer Progression (2012)
- Johns Hopkins Researchers Find Key to Lymph Node Metastasis of Breast Cancer in Mice (2012)
- Johns Hopkins Researchers Discover How Breast Cancer Spreads to Lung (2011)
- Johns Hopkins Researchers Link Cell Division And Oxygen Levels (2011)
- Understanding Cancer Energetics (2011)
- New Hope for Cancer Comes Straight from the Heart (2009)
- 1930s Drug Slows Tumor Growth (2009)
- Gene Therapy and Stem Cells Save Limb (2009)
- How Chemotherapy Drugs Block Blood Vessel Growth, Slow Cancer Spread (2009)