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2019 Nobel Prize cell hypoxia findings significant in eye disease research

11 October 2019

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for the discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability, has paved way for the comprehension of many eye diseases. 
“The hypoxia sensing mechanisms are fundamental to understanding how hypoxia becomes pathological and leads to eye diseases, which can generate  future treatments,” Helder André says, researcher at St. Erik Eye Hospital and Karolinska Institutet.

Helder André’s research group focuses on vascular ocular diseases, particularly wet or neovascular age-related macular degeneration.

The group specifically studies how low levels of oxygen, called hypoxia, affects the formation of new blood vessels that are associated with eye diseases, and ultimately how to translate that knowledge into new forms of treatments.

Helder André. Johanna Hanno

Helder André, what are your views on the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine discoveries?

"I find the decision of the Nobel Assembly on the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine very exciting. Of course, the scientific merit recognized by this award is absolutely warranted to the Laureates, as the way cells sense oxygen is unique from a molecular perspective, but also how important these fundamental discoveries are to understanding diseases such as cancer, anemia, and wound healing, just to mention a few."

"I did my PhD thesis on molecular mechanisms of the hypoxia-inducible factors regulation, in Professor Lorenz Poellinger ‘s lab at Karolinska Institutet, a renowned scientist in the hypoxia field who sadly passed away in 2016."

In general, what is the significance of these findings for eye research?

"In the eye, hypoxia is in many cases normal, physiological. But it is also associated with many eye diseases, particularly diseases related with new blood vessels formation, such as neovascular age-related macular degeneration, retinopathy of prematurity, proliferative diabetic retinopathy, and ocular tumors. The specifics of the hypoxia sensing mechanisms in eye diseases are fundamental to understanding how hypoxia becomes pathological and lead to eye diseases, which can generate possible future treatments."

In what way have these findings affected your own research?

"In 2015, my research group discovered that the hypoxia-inducible factors are at the center of wet age-related macular degeneration. Since then, we have been dedicated to studying what is creating the hypoxia unbalance at a molecular level, and also how to specifically target the hypoxia-sensors as putative forms of therapy."

What are your hopes that the findings will lead to in the future, when it comes to eye diseases?

"I believe that the 2019 Nobel Prize on how cells sense and adapt to oxygen levels will bring great awareness in the field of ophthalmology, where hypoxia plays such an important role in both physiology and pathology. I feel certain we will see an increase in basic research and clinical translational knowledge, which will ultimately benefit the patients."

Text: Helena Mayer