ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When William Kaelin was a pre-med student, one professor suggested he get a taste for laboratory research. It did not go well.
WILLIAM KAELIN: It turns out in hindsight that virtually everything that could have been wrong in a laboratory was wrong in this laboratory. And I remember getting a C-minus, which for a pre-med is like having a wooden stake driven through your heart.
SHAPIRO: Safe to say William Kaelin overcame that C-minus just fine. Not only did he make it through medical school and launch a career in research, today it was announced he will be awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris picks up the story.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: After his disastrous start in the lab, William Kaelin figured he would focus his attention on treating patients. And indeed, he started down that path, settling into a job at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
KAELIN: And it became increasingly clear as I was treating more and more patients with cancer as a young man the obvious truth, which is if we were ever going to improve the treatment of these diseases, we had to understand them better.
HARRIS: And that drew him deep into the science of disease and deep into the laboratory. He was interested in a hereditary cancer called Von Hippel-Lindau disease.
KAELIN: And the tumors that these patients develop are notorious for overproducing various distress signals that are normally induced by low oxygen.
HARRIS: Following this curious trail and having no idea where it would lead, Kaelin dug into the proteins and genes that cells use to sense oxygen levels and to adapt accordingly.
KAELIN: Fortunately, this line of investigation sort of collided with the line of investigation that had been started by Gregg Semenza and Peter Ratcliffe.
HARRIS: Semenza at Johns Hopkins and Ratcliffe at the University of Oxford were chipping away at this from a completely different direction. Happily, the lines of research intersected. And happier still for these three physician scientists, they will share the 2019 Nobel Prize for their work in discovering the mechanisms by which our cells sense oxygen and adapt. Kaelin, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, says there’s already a drug for kidney cancer that interferes with this system.
KAELIN: But more importantly, now that we really understand the circuit, there are multiple other opportunities to intervene therapeutically.
HARRIS: Several new potential cancer drugs are in the works. And this is not just about cancer, says Isha Jain, who has just launched her career at UC San Francisco studying oxygen in the body.
ISHA JAIN: Oxygen is absolutely critical to every aspect of health and disease, and so most of the causes of death in developed nations are actually linked to a lack of oxygen and a lack of nutrients.
HARRIS: Those include stroke and heart attack. As it happens, Jain also stumbled into this area as she was studying something different – mitochondrial disease.
JAIN: Yeah, that’s the beauty of science.
HARRIS: The temptation in medical research these days is to focus on a very specific objective, but Kaelin argues that curiosity-driven research like his can really pay off.
KAELIN: Let’s generate new knowledge. And let’s just hope that, on occasion, that knowledge is sufficient to allow us to do something that’s therapeutically useful.
HARRIS: Richard Harris, NPR News.
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