Three scientists who discovered how cells sense and adapt to oxygen levels have won the 2019 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.
Our body’s cells use oxygen to convert food into usable energy.
The trio – British Sir Peter Ratcliffe and two Americans, William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza – discovered how cells adapt when oxygen levels drop.
The Swedish Academy said their “elegant” findings were leading to treatments for anaemia and even cancer.
It said: “The fundamental importance of oxygen has been understood for centuries, but how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen has long been unknown.”
Sir Peter Ratcliffe is based at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, William Kaelin at Harvard in the US and Gregg Semenza at Johns Hopkins University in the US.
Oxygen levels vary in different parts of the body, such as during exercise or at high altitude or after a cut or wound.
When oxygen levels drop cells are forced to rapidly adapt their metabolism.
The oxygen-sensing ability of the body can trigger the production of new red blood cells or the construction of new blood vessels.
It also has a role in the immune system and the earliest stages of our development inside the womb.
Understanding the role of the body’s oxygen-sensing abilities is leading to ideas for new treatments.
In cancer, tumours can hi-jack the process to create new blood vessels and make it easier for the cancer to grow.
Telling the body to make more red blood cells could also be an effective treatment for anaemia.