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Sir Peter Ratcliffe

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

2019

Every cell in the body needs the right amount of oxygen to function and survive. The importance of oxygen has been understood for centuries, but how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen has long been unknown. 

Sir Peter Ratcliffe is known for his discovery of a universal mechanism for detecting and responding to low oxygen levels, known as ‘hypoxia’, that has since been found in all our cells. His discoveries earned him a share of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (shared with American scientists William G. Kaelin and Gregg L. Semenza). 

Over the course of three decades, Sir Peter’s Oxford-based laboratory has become an international leader in the discovery of how cells sense and respond to oxygen depletion. Ratcliffe’s flair for innovation and imaginative mechanisms could have profound implications for the treatment of the world’s most serious health problems, including cardiac diseases and cancer. 

To make big discoveries you need to be careful, rigorous and systematic, but you also need the courage to ask difficult questions. “It is a compromise between being unreasonable enough to do things other people wouldn't do and research enough to accept the rules of biology and work out a good standard of proof of the things that you find,” he says. 

More recently, Sir Peter has been focussing on other aspects of hypoxia and hypoxic signalling in relation to cancer. “When you switch a major component, that will have an indirect reflection through hundreds of thousands connections,” Ratcliffe says. “What we’re doing in the hypoxia field is coming into cancer research from a different perspective, from the perspective of physiology and that has led us to consider more broadly these tens of thousands of effects.”

Sir Peter is the Director for the Target Discovery Institute within the Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford and is a practicing clinician at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford. He is Professor of Medicine and is a member of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.

In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize, Sir Peter was honoured with various other awards during his career. In 2010 he received the Canada Gairdner International Award, and in 2016 he shared the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award with Kaelin and Semenza. He was elected to the Royal Society in 2002 and was knighted in 2014.