Is the cell vital

How cells deal with oxygen

Oxygen is essential to human life. But for a long time it was unclear how body cells measure the content in their environment. Olle Kämpe from the Nobel Assembly explains why this research area is so important.

To person

Olle Kämpe is a member of the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. He is also a member of the Nobel Committee - this is the working group that nominates candidates for the Nobel Prizes.

Why is the work of this year's Nobel Prize winners in Medicine important to humanity?

Olle Kämpe: Because it's about a basic physiological mechanism. This explains how cells in the body perceive the oxygen content. It's a very elegant, but also surprising mechanism. All cells in the body consistently produce a protein called HIF-1α, which under normal circumstances is instantly destroyed.

Why does our body do this?

So we have a kind of rescue mechanism. If the oxygen levels suddenly dwindle - when you exercise, have an injury, or have an illness - then there isn't enough oxygen to destroy HIF. HIF survives and activates around 300 genes in the cell nucleus, for example for erythropoietin and mucin.

The 2019 #NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded jointly to William G. Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza "for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability."

- The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 7, 2019

How does that help

Let me give you an example: when you have an acute respiratory infection, the body gets less oxygen. Then something in the lungs is activated to produce one of the many proteins, mucin 5a - the common word for this is mucus. This will help clear the infection.

However, cancer cells also make use of the mechanism. How?

Many forms of cancer use this system. For example, if you have a wound, some blood vessels have been destroyed. The oxygen level in a particular area of ​​the body will then decrease and the system will be activated. One of the then activated proteins ensures that new cells grow. Many tumors adopt this system in order to grow in a more aggressive manner. Many forms of cancer do this, especially kidney cancer.

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