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Nobel Laureate Medicine 2019: William Kaelin

William Kaelin Photo Jenny Öhman Nordic Life Science
William Kaelin feels he has been fortunate in his scientific career. His contributions have had a great impact, not least within cancer treatment, and for future generations he emphasizes the importance of supporting basic science. Identifying a tumor’s distress call for oxygen, and knowing how to shut down its supply, can help thwart cancer and aid the development of cancer-fighting drugs, according to work by William G. Kaelin Jr. MD. Kaelin won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on how cells sense and adapt to the availability of oxygen. His research has shed light on the effects of mutations in tumor-suppressor genes in the emergence of cancer. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and the Sidney Farber Professor of Medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School. Co-winners in the same category were Peter J. Ratcliffe from the University of Oxford and the Francis Crick Institute, and Gregg L. Semenza from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. They were all involved in similar work. Follow your own nose The early hour of the award phone call and the excitement it generated gave the event a dreamlike quality, Kaelin says. “I’ve used the word surreal because it does feel surreal in that moment,” Kaelin told Nordic Life Science. “I was also half-asleep,” he joked. “But I think every scientist dreams this might happen, but it is so improbable, you think it won’t happen. I remember being flooded with a sense of gratitude. I have been so fortunate in my scientific career and I have had such wonderfully supportive family, friends, trainees and colleagues - and also some luck in science in that the mechanism we discovered turned out to be beautiful and prize-worthy.” “Collaboration goes on all the time – but too much collaboration can be bad. If everyone goes in the same direction they could all go off a cliff. It’s better to follow your own nose and go in the direction you feel is right.” While he and Semenza worked in similar areas, they did not collaborate; Kaelin calls them friendly competitors. “It’s a fallacy that if scientists collaborated more, progress would come faster,” Kaelin states. “Collaboration goes on all the time – but too much collaboration can be bad. If everyone goes in the same direction they could all go off a cliff. It’s better to follow your own nose and go in the direction you feel is right.”   New cancer treatments Studies of tumor blood flow and how cells adjust to oxygen levels are critical to developing cancer treatments that can literally suffocate tumors. Most, if not all, cancers need to obtain an oxygen delivery system, notes Kaelin. “Once we understo
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