STOCKHOLM – Two scientists from the United States and one from the U.K. won the 2019 Nobel medicine prize on Monday for discovering how cells adapt to fluctuating oxygen levels, paving the way for new strategies to fight diseases such as anaemia and cancer.
The Nobel award-giving body said U.S.-born researchers William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza shared the prize equally with Peter Ratcliffe, who was born in Britain.
“The seminal discoveries by this year’s Nobel laureates revealed the mechanism for one of life’s most essential adaptive processes,” the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said in a statement on awarding the prize of 9 million Swedish crowns ($913,000).
Their research established the basis for the understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological functions, the institute said.
“Oxygen sensing is central to a large number of diseases,” it said. “Intense ongoing efforts in academic laboratories and pharmaceutical companies are now focused on developing drugs that can interfere with different disease states by either activating, or blocking, the oxygen-sensing machinery.”
Medicine is the first of the Nobel Prizes awarded each year. The prizes for achievements in science, peace and literature have been awarded since 1901 and were created in the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.
Nobel medicine laureates have included scientific greats such as Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, and Karl Landsteiner, who identified separate blood types and so enabled safe transfusions to be widely introduced.
Last year American James Allison and Japanese Tasuku Honjo won the prize for discoveries about how to harness the immune system in cancer therapies.
Monday’s announcement will be followed by the prizes for physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday, and economics on Oct. 14.
In between, the peace prize will be announced in Oslo on Friday, with Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg seen as the favorite on betting sites such as Ladbrokes.
Predictions about possible winners are notoriously difficult as the prize-awarding institutions keep the names of the nominees secret for 50 years.
For the peace prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has only disclosed that it received 301 nominations this year.
Traditionally sensitive to issues gripping the public’s attention, the committee has undoubtedly noted the recent “Greta phenomenon” and the enthusiasm she has sparked among young generations in her campaign to raise awareness about climate change.
Experts remain however divided on whether there is an actual link between armed conflicts and climate change.
The head of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, Henrik Urdal, therefore deemed it “extremely unlikely” the 16-year-old would win, adding her young age could also work against her.
The youngest laureate so far is Malala Yousafzai, who won the 2014 Peace Prize at the age of 17.
Other names circulating are Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who clinched a peace deal with arch foe Eritrea, and NGOs such as Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Sweden’s biggest daily Dagens Nyheter (DN) said the physics prize could go to quantum physics research, citing U.S. scientist John Clauser, Alain Aspect of France, and Austria’s Anton Zeilinger.
Ronald Hanson of the Netherlands could win for his work on quantum entanglement, Swedish public radio broadcaster SR said.
For the chemistry prize, American John Goodenough, who invented lithium batteries, could become the oldest ever winner of a Nobel, at the age of 97.
But it could also go to two women, Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer Doudna of the US, for the gene-editing technique known as the CRISPR-Cas9 DNA snipping tool, a type of genetic “scissors” used to cut out a mutated gene in a human embryo and replace it with a corrected version.
Last year, the Swedish Academy which awards the literature prize was torn apart by a sexual harassment scandal that exposed deep conflicts among its 18 members. For the first time in 70 years, without a quorum to make key decisions, it postponed the 2018 Nobel by a year. As a result two literature laureates will be announced this year, one for 2018 and one for 2019.
Madelaine Levy, literary critic at Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, suggested there was however a risk the selected laureates may turn down the prize, if they consider it to be tarnished by the scandal.
The academy has spent the past year trying to address its issues and restore its honor, and is therefore seen to be steering clear of controversy in its picks.
Writers who have been making a buzz include Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, Kenya’s Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Ismail Kadare of Albania, Joyce Carol Oates of the U.S. and Japan’s Haruki Murakami, critics have said.
Unlike the other Nobels awarded since 1901, the economics prize is the only one not created by the prizes’ founder, philanthropist and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, in his 1895 will. It was devised in 1968 to mark the 300th anniversary of Sweden’s Central Bank, and first awarded in 1969.
Among possible laureates this year are three women, according to economics commentator Micael Dahlen: Anne Krueger of the U.S. for her work on international trade, Cuban-born American Carmen Reinhart for her work on public debt and growth, and French development aid economist Esther Duflo.