Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine

UZH Honorary Doctor Receives Nobel Prize

In 2017, the University of Zurich bestowed an honorary doctorate on Sir Peter John Ratcliffe – today Ratcliffe, together with William G. Kaelin and Gregg L. Semenza, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his research into oxygen supply in cells.

Melanie Nyfeler

Peter Ratcliffe
His research focused on one of the basic requirements for life: Oxygen. Sir Peter Ratcliffe, along with William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza, has received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. (Image: Frank Brüderli)


“We are celebrating along with the three Nobel Prize winners, we’ve been expecting it for years,” says Roland Wenger, head of the “Cellular Oxygen Physiology” research group of the Institute of Physiology at the University of Zurich. Wenger knows all three Nobel Prize winners personally, as they worked in the same area of research. “The three musketeers have had a bit more success, it has to be said,” laughs Wenger. “It’s a big research community, but the three Nobel Prize winners were always on another level.”

Sir Peter John Ratcliffe has a personal connection to the University of Zurich: The British professor was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Vetsuisse Faculty in recognition of his groundbreaking research which led to the identification of the cellular oxygen sensor. This breakthrough was of great clinical significance for both veterinary medicine and human medicine.

Cells adapt in response to the amount of oxygen available

Ratcliffe discovered that all mammal cells are capable of measuring lack of oxygen states. His findings showed that many medical problems such as cancer, heart attacks, vascular disease, wound healing and anemia are connected with the degree of oxygenation.  In addition, he was able to prove that in an oxygen-rich environment, certain hydroxylases flag and break down the HIF molecule. If, however, there is a lack of oxygen, the HIF molecule is not hydrolyzed, that is not flagged for degradation, but stabilized. In this way, mammals are able to react appropriately to lack of oxygen states.

Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe of the University of Oxford, William G. Kaelin Jr. of Harvard Medical School and Gregg L. Semenza of John Hopkins University were awarded the renowned Albert Lasker Prize for medical research in 2016. Now they’ve topped it with the Nobel Prize. UZH congratulates all three laureates!

Melanie Nyfeler, Media Relations Officer; English translation by Caitlin Stephens

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