Dr. Greg L. Semenza, 60, is the director of vascular programs at the John Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering. His discovery of a previously unknown protein – and subsequent research – has earned him the Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for 2016. If all goes according to plan, his work could someday help combat a wide variety of deadly diseases ranging from breast cancer to diabetes.
The Lasker Award was established by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation in 1946. Recipients are awarded a $250,000 prize and will be honored this year on September 23rd in New York. Previous recipients include New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (2009) and recovery advocate Betty Ford (2000).
Almost 90 Lasker winners have gone on to achieve the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the 1990s, Semenza was laboring over the connection between oxygen deprivation and the erythropoietin gene. This gene is responsible for regulating erythrocytes, more commonly known as red blood cells. During his research, Semenza came across a protein unlike any other – a protein that could, among other things, potentially stop the spread of cancer.
The HIF-1 protein is largely responsible for controlling a wide variety of functions within the body. Aside from helping create energy without the use of oxygen, HIF-1 also helps regulate our core temperature and also transfers oxygen to cells as needed. Most importantly, it’s heavily responsible for stimulating a gene that creates new red blood cells.
When Semenza and his team noticed that oxygen deprivation seemed to make the HIF-1 go into overdrive, and caused the mass production of red blood cells, they got an idea. Perhaps the HIF-1 protein’s powers could be manipulated and harnessed to medical patients’ advantage. Semenza postulated that the HIF-1 could relieve certain medical conditions and set about conducting copious amounts of research.
Over a decade later, Semenza is still plugging away at the mystery. However, his preliminary research looks promising. Among other things, the HIF-1 appears to be able to potentially help anyone suffering from clogged arteries. For example, if someone is experiencing low oxygen levels due an artery clog, the HIF-1 could potentially stimulate the production of healthy new red blood cells to carry more oxygen. This treatment could also be used to relieve clogged blood vessels in the legs due to diabetes, which could potentially reduce the number of amputations in the future.
Semenza is determined to use this research to help cure even the most aggressive forms of cancer. Since cancer cells also rely on the HIF-1 protein to provide them with the oxygen-enriched blood they need to survive, deactivating the protein could potentially deny the cancer access to nutrition. In this manner, scientists are hopeful that “turning off” the HIF-1 protein could actually leave cancerous tumors with no way to spread.
Despite receiving an abundance of critical acclaim from the scientific community along with a quarter-of-a-million-dollars in prize money, Semenza is keeping a level head. He is not sure who exactly nominated him for the award, but he did not hesitate to downplay the momentous occasion in its entirety.
“All of this stuff is very nice,” Semenza said. “But I don’t worry about things that are out of my control.”
Two researchers aboard Semenza’s 1990s team are receiving the Lasker Basic Medical Research award as well. William G. Kaelin, Jr. is a researcher for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, and Peter J. Ratcliff of the University of Oxford and Francis Crick Institute. Together, these three names could very well be credited as the early pioneers who cured America’s leading diseases – all with a single discovery.