“It’s important to have people at the boundary between research and medicine”
Telephone interview with Sir Peter Ratcliffe following the announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 7 October 2019. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Gregg Semenza emphasises the unexpected journey research takes you on, as well as the need for researchers who can cross the boundaries between the clinic and the bench. This telephone conversation with Adam Smith was recorded just after he had received news of his Nobel Prize and his surprise at the news is evident. “Even after people have been telling you for 20 years or more that it’s going to happen,” he says, “No-one expects it.”
Gregg Semenza: Hello.
Adam Smith: Hello, my name is Adam Smith, calling from Nobelprize.org in Stockholm. Well, first of all, many, many congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
GS: Thank you.
AS: Were you asleep when the call came?
GS: Most definitely. [Laughs]
AS: Nice way to be woken up.
GS: Yes, I think it took two calls. The first time I didn’t get there quite in time but managed on the second try.
AS: You must have … you must have had a nervous moment because I guess you may have had an inkling what the call was about, thinking you may have missed it.
GS: Yeah, either that or I thought someone had a very bad sense of humour.
AS: That could happen I suppose. What did you do upon hearing the news?
GS: Hugged my wife.
AS: So, this lovely combination of the three of you in the way your work intertwines, but you discovered the protein HIF-1. Were you amazed by how ubiquitous its involvement in pathophysiology and normal physiology seems to be?
GS: For sure. Yeah, we started studying a very specific and kind of limited question of how red blood cell production was regulated, and from there it expanded to so many areas of physiology and medicine. Quite amazing.
AS: Reading the story of how it all pieced together, it illustrates how much science research is about solving puzzles.
GS: Yes, and unexpected turns. That’s what makes science so exciting, you never quite know where your studies are going to lead you.
AS: It must be a little bit like being a detective.
GS: Yeah, it is. You have the added benefit that solving the puzzle may ultimately impact on people’s health, of course the most important part of the process.
AS: That’s an interesting point because all three of you have one foot in the research lab and one foot in clinical practice. Do you think that’s an important point?
GS: Yeah I do. I think it’s really important to have people who are kind of there at the boundary between research and medicine to facilitate the discovery of knowledge that will translate ultimately to improvements in clinical practice.
AS: It must be increasingly hard to keep both things going, with increasing clinical workloads and, I don’t know, more form filling if you’re a scientist.
GS: Yes, that’s right. In fact I stopped my clinical work about 20 years ago and focussed on the research at that time.
AS: I must say, you do sound … you sound quite knocked back by the news.
GS: Yeah, well certainly nobody expects that, that’s for sure. Even after people have been telling you for, you know, 20 years or more that it’s going to happen, no one expects it.
AS: That’s right, because the three of you got the Lasker Prize in 2016, which is sometimes an indicator isn’t it?
GS: Yeah, sure, but it’s still no guarantee and there’s certainly lots of deserving candidates, so I was certainly speechless when I received the news.
AS: Well, it’s going to be a day of conversations with journalists who are going to be landing on you. Will you find any respite before then, perhaps not?
GS: No, I don’t think so. [Laughs]
AS: We look forward enormously to welcoming you to Stockholm when you come in December to receive the Prize.
GS: I certainly look forward to it.
AS: Thank you very much indeed, and once again congratulations.
GS: Okay, take care.
AS: Thank you, bye bye.
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Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.