All organisms need oxygen to transform consumed food into energy. Our bodies can adapt to changing levels of oxygen: when the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is lowered (e.g. at high altitudes), built-in mechanisms secure the adequate distribution of oxygen to all parts of the body in difficult conditions. The key player in this mechanism is the hypoxia induced factor (HIF), which is responsible for triggering the increased production of red blood cells and also for switching on the survival mode of the cells and growth of new blood vessels, when necessary. However, to our disadvantage, this finely tuned process can be utilized by cancer cells to ensure more efficient metabolism and growth in the low oxygen level environment, such as inside the solid tumour.
This year’s Nobel prize winners – William Kaelin, from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Peter Ratcliffe, from Oxford University, and Gregg Semenza, from Johns Hopkins University, have deciphered the molecular mechanism of HIF oxygen-sensing and its potential implications in cancer. Thanks to their work, it is now possible to harness one of nature’s essential processes to treat cancer, generating interest among both big and small pharma companies. Peloton Therapeutics is working on the kidney cancer drug targeting this mechanism. This private Dallas-based company was acquired by Merck & Co in May this year for a total of $ 2.2 B, just before the planned initial public offering.
For the second year in a row, the Nobel Prize in Medicine has gone to researchers whose insights are useful in the field of oncology. Last year, James Allison and Tasuku Honjo were awarded for their work on checkpoint inhibitors, which have changed the paradigm of cancer treatments worldwide.
Let us hope that research will continue along this path and, above all, contribute to the development of new, more effective and accurate technological weapons to ensure that cancer becomes a disease with which everyone can live.
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