How Do Our Cells Breathe? 2019 Nobel Prize Research In Medicine Has the Answer

By Penny Zhou

This year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to three scientists who discovered how our cells regulate oxygen. What exactly does that mean and why is it important?

We know how essential oxygen is to life. Humans can’t live without breathing it, and neither can the cells in our bodies.

“How does the body ensure that it gets enough oxygen for every cell to survive? It’s sort of the most fundamental requirement there is,” Dr. Gregg Semenza, one of three doctors who won the prize, told Reuters TV, “You can just hold your breath, and you’ll know there’s nothing you can do without for a shorter period of time than oxygen.”

Dr. Raoul Tibes is a physician and researcher at NYU Langone who specializes in blood cancer. He told NTD—all cells in the body need a certain level of oxygen. That level needs to be very finely and tightly regulated, “Too much is not good, and too little is not good.”

All cells in the body need a certain level of oxygen and that level needs to be very finely and tightly regulated, “Too much is not good, and too little is not good,” Dr. Raoul Tibes. a physician and researcher at NYU Langone who specializes in blood cancer, told NTD. (Oliver Trey/NTD)

“If you have too little oxygen, tissue and cells can die. If you have too much oxygen, it’s also not a good situation,” Tibes said.

Many diseases, including anemia, heart failures, and even some cancers, are related to abnormal levels of oxygen. “So a heart attack or stroke is when cells die because they can’t breathe anymore, essentially.” Dr. Tibes said.

That’s why our cells continuously sense the different levels of oxygen and respond to it.

But for centuries, we didn’t understand precisely how cells do that. Until in the 1990s, three scientists identified the genes that do the job.

The genes will sense the oxygen level. When it’s low, they trigger the production of red cells or the formation of blood vessels, so that the level can be increased. When the oxygen level is too high, the genes will deactivate that process.

Dr. Tibes said that the research answers the fundamental question of how cells breathe, “what is being switched on if there’s no oxygen, what’s being switched off if there’s enough oxygen?”

If drugs can be developed to activate the genes, it could mean treatment for low oxygen-related diseases like anemia and heart attack.

The research also has implications in cancer treatment.

For growth, cancer cells need new blood vessels to supply nutrients and oxygen to them. The genes identified in this year’s Nobel research are essential to the formation of the vessels. If drugs can switch those genes off, it will starve the cancer cells and therefore inhibit their growth and proliferation.

Many of the ongoing research aims at developing such drugs.

“I think it’s a true breakthrough in terms of understanding the basic mechanisms biology, what it does in disease, and now finding a therapy for patients that is effective.”

Randall Johnson, a Member of the Nobel Assembly, called the research a “textbook discovery“, something that biology students will be learning at age 12 or 13, “This is a basic aspect, and how a cell works,” Johnson said in an interview with the Nobel Prize, “I think from that standpoint alone it’s—it’s a very exciting thing.”

Nobel Assembly member, Randall Johnson (R), speaks to announce the winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine  during a press conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 7, 2019. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

Dr. Tibes also noted the teamwork of the research. “You can see that more and more of the Nobel prizes are given to two or three researchers,” he said, “Because as a researcher alone, it’s difficult to discover something by themselves.  A lot of smart people, they work often together.”

“They come from different angles, but the same central question,” he said.