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A Nobel Laureate’s Visit to Penn

Susan M. Domchek, MD, Katherine L. Nathanson, MD, William G. Kaelin, Jr., MD, Lynn M. Schuchter, MD, Margaret Foti, PhD, MD,, and Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil.

Just 48 hours after winning the Nobel Prize, William Kaelin spoke to an auditorium packed with more than 250 Perelman School of Medicine students and faculty. His talk, titled “Drugging the Undruggable in Cancer: Exploiting Synthetic Lethality and Protein Degraders,” was part of the Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics Fall Seminar Series.

In the past, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to researchers responsible for work as varied as advancements in the treatment of infections caused by parasites, the development of in vitro fertilization, and the discovery of how organ and cell transplantation can be an effective way to treat disease. In 2019, the honor went to Kaelin, along with Professor Peter Ratcliffe of Oxford University, and Perelman School of Medicine alumnus Gregg Semenza for their discovery of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.

His standing-room-only talk at Penn included both scientific insights into the research that earned the trio the prestigious award and details about Kaelin’s personal journey and the significance of the research in his own life. Kaelin is currently a professor at Harvard Medical School and runs a research laboratory at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

He closed the discussion with a mention of his late wife, who passed away from glioblastoma in 2015.

“Everything we had available to treat her was based on science that was done 10 to 20 years ago,” Kaelin said. “I was acutely aware that statistically, some other loved one of mine might get the disease, and this could be true for you. And they are going to be relying on the science you do today.”

Kaelin, who frequently collaborates with Penn researchers, also spoke the next morning at Penn’s Italy-Philadelphia Convergence on Kidney Cancer Conference. He delivered the opening address and lectured on the conference’s focus of implementing new standards of patient care and creating new strategies to optimize and improve kidney cancer therapies.

Kaelin described the whirlwind his life had been since learning he’d been awarded the prize earlier in the week. It had been difficult to maintain a sense of normalcy, he said, even for those around him. For example, when his girlfriend’s daughter’s school teacher asked students to share something positive that had happened in their home life since the last class, Kaelin joked that “she made it difficult on the next kid who was going to talk about making rice crispy treats.”

Semenza received his medical degree as well as a doctorate in genetics from Penn, where he was part of the Medical Scientists Training Program, after earning his bachelor’s degree in biology from Harvard. He is the 29th Penn-affiliated Nobel Laureate.

The winning scientists’ research findings revealed one of the basic mechanisms of a cell. The discovery of how cells adapt to different altitudes and how some cancer cells are able to hijack oxygen was groundbreaking. Nobel Prize Committee Member Randall Johnson described it as a “textbook discovery.”

“This is a basic aspect of how a cell works and, from that standpoint alone, it’s a very exciting thing,” Johnson told CNN.

“The work of all three laureates exemplifies how years of hard work and collaboration can reveal the secrets of some of the most important biological processes in nature," Celeste Simon, PhD , a professor of Cell and Developmental Biology and the scientific director of the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute and a frequent collaborator of Kaelin’s, told the Philly Voice.

Their research findings have been used to find treatments for various diseases that involve oxygen fluctuations, including heart attacks and strokes. The discovery of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability is also important in the on-going research into certain cancers that seek out oxygen to grow.

However exciting or humbling the honors a scientist may receive, Kaelin noted, the accomplishments of the researcher should never overshadow the results of the science.

“It’s important to step back ... we all have to do a little bit better and try to remember that it’s all about the data and the truth.”

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