By Daniel Myers
Phi Beta Kappa member William Kaelin Jr. is the recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Kaelin, who has been a member of the faculty at Harvard University since 2002, received the Nobel Prize for his research on how “cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.” His work is opening doors for researchers developing treatments to a variety of diseases, including finding a cure for cancer.
Kaelin shares the Nobel Prize with Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins University and Sir Peter Ratcliffe of Oxford University. Through the efforts of these three researchers, the medical world is closer to understanding the complex workings of the body at a cellular level. A member of the Nobel Assembly responsible for awarding this year’s prize called their work “a textbook discovery,” meaning it is the type of research that will be universally taught to medical students for decades to come and will advance the development of treatments for a wide variety of diseases and conditions.
The road to a Nobel Prize is a long one, and Kaelin’s work on this particular discovery has been almost as long as his entire medical career. After his induction into Phi Beta Kappa at Duke University in 1978, Kaelin remained at Duke to earn his M.D. in 1982. His training continued as a house officer and chief resident in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital until he settled on establishing his own research lab in 1992. According to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (where he has served as an investigator since 2002), the research that earned Kaelin the Nobel Prize began all those years ago after looking for a project led Kaelin to read about the identification of the gene for von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease, a rare condition that Kaelin thought may involve an abnormal response to normal oxygen levels.
Kaelin’s Nobel Prize-winning research investigates the ways cells respond to a lack of oxygen in order to understand how something like von Hippel-Lindau disease works on the cellular level. According to Kaelin, the research, now more than a decade in the making, is helping treat diseases like anemia, heart attack, and stroke because scientists can now develop drugs to activate or deactivate a person’s cellular response to oxygen deficiency artificially. Perhaps more importantly, Kaelin notes that the same pathway they can now manipulate artificially also plays a role in cancers; some drugs made possible by his research are now being approved to treat kidney cancers. Kaelin has served as an independent investigator at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute since 1992, so it is doubtless that this major contribution to developing cancer treatments has long been one of his goals.
While it may be easy to see Kaelin’s achievement as a natural progression from his undergraduate studies to today (a conclusion supported by Kaelin’s long list of more than 20 awards), it was not always clear that he was destined for research. In a recent New York Times article one of Kaelin’s pre-med professor’s is noted to have once said Kaelin “appears to be a bright young man whose future lies outside of the laboratory.” Despite this early assessment, Kaelin was driven to research by a natural propensity for “solving puzzles,” as the New York Times noted. This same curiosity led him to investigate von Hippel-Lindau disease and, eventually, to a Nobel Prize-winning discovery. Clearly, Kaelin’s love of learning defines him as a Phi Beta Kappa member through and through. Such a love of learning surely will continue to guide Kaelin on to even greater discoveries.
Daniel Myers is a recent graduate of the College of Wooster with a bachelor's degree in English and theatre and dance. The College of Wooster is home to the Kappa of Ohio chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.