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Duke Alumnus, Trustee William Kaelin Receives Nobel Prize for Medicine

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


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Dr. William G. Kaelin Jr., a Duke trustee and alumnus, was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Kaelin received both his undergraduate and medical degrees from Duke and is a professor in the Department of Medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Kaelin shared the prize with Sir Peter Ratcliffe of Oxford University and Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University 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 did his pediatrics residency training at Duke. The three researchers had previously shared the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2016.

“This enormous honor serves as a symbol of Dr. Kaelin’s seminal discoveries which are advancing the frontiers of science, addressing some of society’s most pressing health challenges, and improving the lives of people around the world,” said Dr. A. Eugene Washington, Chancellor for Health Affairs for Duke and President and CEO, of Duke University Health System. “We are thrilled that the Nobel Committee has recognized his extraordinary contributions to science, medicine and health."

Kaelin earned his undergraduate degree in 1979, majoring in chemistry and mathematics, and a medical degree from Duke in 1982. 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.

“This is well-deserved recognition for such an impactful body of work,” said Dr. Mary E. Klotman, dean of the Duke School of Medicine. “We are so very proud of our Duke Med alum.”

Kaelin is a member of the American Society of Clinical Investigation, the American College of Physicians, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine.

He is the third Duke alumnus to receive the Nobel Prize. Previous 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.

This story will be updated during the day.

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