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The 2019 Nobel Prizes in Science

Date: Thu. January 30th, 2020, 4:00 pm-5:00 pm
Location: Rockfeller 301

Ben Monreal (Physics) on the prize in Physics, Dan Scherson (Chemistry) on the prize in Chemistry and Abhishek Chakraborty (Department of Cancer Biology) on the prize in Physiology or Medicine. 

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor for their 1995 discovery of 51 Pegasi b, the first extrasolar planet.  The star 51 Pegasi is only a little different than the Sun, but 51 Pegasi b is like nothing previously known—it’s a Jupiter-like object, but in fiery hot orbit very close to the star.  Didier and Queloz, using a small telescope with an exquisite spectrograph, detected 51 Pegasi’s small Doppler shifts due to its accelerations in the gravity of its planet.  The study of extrasolar planets became a huge subfield of astronomy, which has a chance of answering the big question “how common is life beyond Earth” in upcoming decades.

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough and Akira Yoshino for their contributions to the development of lithium-ion batteries. In particular, Whittingham and Yoshino described the use of titanium disulfide and various carbons as lithium intercalation cathodes and anodes, respectively.   Goodenough, on the other hand, discovered, after a systematic materials search, a series of lithium intercalation transition metal oxides with voltages twice as large as those of the sulfides. Lithium ion batteries have not only revolutionized the way in which we communicate, and store and disseminate information, but have also made it possible to store energy from intermittent renewable sources, such as solar and wind power, and increase the range of electric cars.   

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to Dr. William G. Kaelin, Jr., Dr. Peter J. Ratcliffe, and Dr. Gregg L. Semenza for their work describing “how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability”. In Metazoans (or multicellular animals, like humans), oxygen is essential for life, and oxygen loss (or hypoxia) imposes profound stress. Metazoans have therefore evolved a number of biological pathways to minimize cellular damage caused by hypoxia, which include changes in metabolism, blood vessel density, and blood cell composition. The activation of the Hypoxia Inducible Factor (or HIF) transcription factor, is arguably the most prominent master regulator that drives these compensatory changes in response to oxygen loss. Through independent findings in their respective laboratories, the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize identified HIF as the central node in hypoxic response, defined how cells regulate HIF levels in response to oxygen, and developed drugs to modulate HIF to combat human disease. The implications of these findings have been far-reaching, explaining, for example, how people in high altitudes adapt to low oxygen by regulating HIF, how tumors experiencing hypoxia activate HIF-dependent pathways for survival, and how acute activation of HIF could be used to treat anemia. In this talk, we will discuss the history of these discoveries, the rationale behind transitioning these findings into the clinic, and the tools currently available to harness this pathway in the clinic.


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