Like most scientists, I like solving puzzles. And there has always been something puzzling to me about oxygen. Oxygen is the lifeblood of living organisms. And although we need it to survive, too much can be toxic. For years, my colleagues and I studied how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. This puzzle was complicated, like most basic research. But we kept at it, knowing it was only a matter of time before we broke through and learned enough to translate our discoveries to help patients.
And we were right. Today, our findings have implications for treating a variety of diseases, including anemia, heart attacks, strokes—and cancer. When I won the Nobel Prize for that research, I was thrilled—thrilled that our efforts were now helping patients, thrilled for all of my mentors, trainees, and collaborators over the years who made the work possible, and thrilled to celebrate this moment with people who mean so much to me.
I also share this honor with my late wife, Carolyn.
Carolyn was a Dana-Farber faculty member and the founding director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her patients loved her, because she was the type of doctor who would call her patients back after she put the children to bed—even if it was 10:00 pm.
Then, this leader in the treatment of breast cancer—was diagnosed with breast cancer. Through her treatment, Carolyn continued her research and advocacy for patients and spent time with our two children.
In 2010, Carolyn was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the deadliest of brain cancers, unrelated to her previous breast cancer. She passed away in 2015. She was a pioneer, my partner, my hero, my inspiration … and my best friend.
Her determination continues to inspire me. Because determination is what it takes to solve the hardest puzzles—ones we continue to tackle every day at Dana-Farber. Today, we are close to many breakthroughs in cancer treatment. They will happen. With persistence, vision, and the power of a diverse ecosystem of collaborators, we will get there. You can find all of that here at Dana-Farber, a place I’m happy to call home.
— William G. Kaelin Jr., MD
Nobel Laureate in Medicine, 2019
Researcher, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Sidney Farber Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School