Life for Dr Peter Ratcliffe came full circle when he was jointly awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Medicine -- along with William Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg Semenza -- for their pioneering research into how human cells respond to changing oxygen levels. However, a 27-year-old letter doing rounds on the internet reveals that his award-winning study on cells and their adaptability to oxygen, was rejected for publication by a science journal in 1992.
In the letter dated August 5, 1992, Dr Rory Howlett, the-then associate editor at Nature, had written to Ratcliffe informing him of the journal’s decision to not publish his study after comments by two reviewers. “Given the discrepancy mentioned by reviewer 1, we have sadly concluded, on balance, that your paper would be better placed in a more specialised journal, particularly given the competition for space,” it said.
Announcing the prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Monday, the Nobel committee said that the trio's discoveries on the mechanism cells use to respond to change in oxygen levels or hypoxia, have paved the way for "promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer and many other diseases." The importance of oxygen has long been established, the committee explained, but how cells adapt to changes in its levels remained unknown.
But, back in the 1992, the reviewers for Nature were unable to comprehend the “mechanisms of genetic response to hypoxia” that Ratcliffe had proposed. It led them to conclude that the study was unfit for publication as the direction of research was something which was beyond their understanding -- a reminder that science builds itself over time, and discoveries that transform our understanding are not instantly apparent.
Noting this, Nature, in its congratulatory announcement for the prize observed, "Over the years, the pioneering research helped pave way towards a plethora of medications that target this pathway."
This is not the first time that a Nobel laureate's study or research was initially rejected. Among notable names is Peter Higgs who proposed the Higgs model. His short paper describing the study was rejected by the journal Physics Letters in 1964. He went on to win the Nobel in 2013.
Similarly, the work of Rosalyn Yallow, who won the Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1977, was rejected by The Journal of Clinical Investigation. Her research on radioimmunoassay – a common technique used for determining antibody levels in the body – was believed to be lacking grounding by the reviewers of the journal.