Duke Alumnus, Trustee William Kaelin Receives Nobel Prize for Medicine

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

Dr. William Kaelin and the Nobel Prize for Medicine
Dr. William Kaelin will receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine in December in Stockholm.

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 Sidney Farber professor of medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham & Women’s Hospital, 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. 

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

William Kaelin receives a Duke honorary degree at the 2018 commencement.

“I am delighted to join the chorus of colleagues and friends in congratulating Bill Kaelin on this extraordinary and well-deserved honor. Bill’s groundbreaking work in genetics and physiology is transforming our understanding of how the body fights disease, and it has the potential to save so many lives in the years ahead," said Duke President Vincent Price. “Our entire university community is very proud of him as a double Duke alumnus, trustee, and honorary degree recipient.”

“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 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.

“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 alumni 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.

Kaelin wasn't the only Duke connection among the winners. Semenza did training in pediatrics at Duke from 1984-86.

“This is a momentous day for all of us at Duke, and we are immensely 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.