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Former Duke Pediatrics trainee, Gregg Semenza receives Nobel Prize for Medicine

Monday, October 7, 2019
Gregg Semenza

Dr. Gregg Semenza, a former Duke Pediatrics residency trainee, was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Semenza is the C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Semenza shared the prize with Sir Peter Ratcliffe, a professor at Oxford University and the Francis Crick Institute, and Dr. William G. Kaelin Jr., a professor of medicine at Harvard University and researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, for research on how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability, a process that is essential for survival of any organism and a part of cancer resistance. The work has implications for diseases beyond cancer, such as anemia, myocardial infarction and stroke. 

Semenza wasn't the only Duke connection among the winners. Kaelin earned his undergraduate degree in 1979, majoring in chemistry and mathematics, and a medical degree from Duke in 1983. He received an honorary degree from Duke in 2018 and the Duke University School of Medicine Distinguished Alumni Award in 2007. He joined the Duke Board of Trustees this past July.

The three researchers had previously shared the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2016.

“This is a memorable day for all of us at Duke, and we are extremely proud of this notable recognition of our former Duke Pediatrics trainee, Dr. Gregg Semenza, and his colleagues,” says Dr. Ann M. Reed, chair of the Duke Department of Pediatrics and physician-in-chief of Duke Children’s.

Researcher shares award for studies of how cells adapt to changing oxygen environments

Semenza is a member of the Institute for Cell Engineering, the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, and the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. His studies are currently focused on the role of HIF-1 in cancer, ischemia, and chronic lung disease, the most common causes of mortality in the U.S. population. 

Semenza was born in New York City and is the first of five children. His love of science developed thanks to his biology teacher at Sleepy Hollow High School in Westchester County, New York. He attended Harvard University for his bachelor's degree. While there, a family friend had a child born with Down syndrome, which inspired him to study pediatric genetics.

Semenza received his MD/PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, studying the genetic disorder beta thalassemia. He later went to Duke University to complete his internship and residency in pediatrics from 1984 -86. He moved to Johns Hopkins in 1986 for a postdoctoral fellowship in medical genetics; met his wife, Laura Kasch-Semenza; and has been at Hopkins since then. They have three children.

Semenza has authored more than 400 research articles and book chapters, which have been cited more than 130,000 times. He serves on the editorial boards of several scientific publications and is the deputy editor of The Journal of Clinical Investigation. He has received the American Heart Association Established Investigator Award, the American Cancer Society Research Professor Award, the Lefoulon-Delalande Scientific Grand Prize from the Institut de France, the Stanley J. Korsmeyer Award from the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, the Canada Gairdner International Award, and the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. He is an elected member of the Society for Pediatric Research, American Society for Clinical Investigation, Association of American Physicians, National Academy of Medicine, and National Academy of Sciences.

Previous Duke alumni Nobel Prize winners were Robert Richardson and Charles Townes. Two current School of Medicine faculty members, Robert Lefkowitz and Paul Modrich, have received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.