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Westchester Native Awarded Nobel Prize For Breakthrough Discovery

Gregg L. Semenza, M.D., Ph.D. Photo Credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine
Hudson Valley native Gregg L. Semenza was one of three researchers to be awarded the Nobel Prize. Photo Credit: The Nobel Assembly

A Hudson Valley native was one of three researchers who were awarded a Nobel Prize for showing how cells sense and adapt to changing oxygen levels, leading to the discovery of new drugs.

The Nobel Prize was awarded to Gregg L. Semenza, a Sleepy Hollow High School alum, who is the C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

William G. Kaelin Jr., who teaches at Harvard, and Peter J. Ratcliffe, who researches at the University of Oxford and Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, were also named as the honorees of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Semenza grew up in Tarrytown and graduated from Sleepy Hollow High School in 1974.

In a previous interview, Semenza credited his high school biology teacher, Rose Nelson.

“She was unbelievable,” Semenza said to the New York Times. “She transmitted the wonder and joy of science and scientific discovery. She set me on a course to science.”

“The fundamental importance of oxygen has been understood for centuries, but how cells adapt to changes in oxygen levels has long been unknown. This year’s Nobel Prize awarded work reveals the molecular mechanisms that underlie how cells adapt to variations in oxygen supply,” officials said.

“Oxygen sensing is central to a large number of diseases. The discoveries made by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have fundamental importance for physiology and have paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and many other diseases.”

The three scientists, worked independently to determine the course of molecular events that allow cells to detect and respond to different levels of oxygen in an effort to allow the human body to adapt to thinner air at high altitudes by generating more red blood cells to carry oxygen.

Cancer cells can exploit genetic switches to thrive in higher altitudes. The scientists' research will allow the creation of new drugs that can increase cells’ tolerance for low oxygen, offering a way to treat heart attacks and strokes.

Semenza and Ratcliffe studied the regulation of a hormone called erythropoietin, which stimulates the production of red blood cells in response to low levels of oxygen.

On Monday, Oct. 7, The Nobel Assembly said, “the seminal discoveries by this year’s Nobel laureates revealed the mechanism for one of life’s most essential adaptive processes,” according to the statement. “Their discoveries have also paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anemia, cancer and many other diseases.”

A complete breakdown of the scientists' work can be found here.

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