Break­ing new ground

> Ja­panese Yoshi­nori Oh­sumi is the win­ner of this year’s No­bel Medicine Prize

The Sun (Malaysia) - - LIFESTYLE -

YOSHI­NORI OH­SUMI ( above) of Ja­pan has won the No­bel Medicine Prize this year for his pi­o­neer­ing work on au­tophagy – a process whereby cells ‘eat them­selves’ – which, when dis­rupted, can cause Parkin­son’s and di­a­betes.

A fun­da­men­tal process in cell phys­i­ol­ogy, au­tophagy is es­sen­tial for the or­derly re­cy­cling of dam­aged cell parts and un­der­stand­ing it bet­ter has ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions for health and dis­ease, in­clud­ing can­cer.

Oh­sumi’s dis­cov­er­ies “have led to a new par­a­digm in the un­der­stand­ing of how the cell re­cy­cles its con­tents”, the jury said.

“Mu­ta­tions in au­tophagy genes can cause dis­ease, and the au­tophagic process is in­volved in sev­eral con­di­tions in­clud­ing can­cer and neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­ease,” the jury added.

Re­searchers first ob­served dur­ing the 1960s that the cell could de­stroy its own con­tents by wrap­ping them up in mem­branes and trans­port­ing them to a re­cy­cling com­part­ment called the lyso­some – a dis­cov­ery that earned Bel­gian sci­en­tist Chris­tian de Duve a No­bel Medicine Prize in 1974.

It was de Duve who coined the term ‘au­tophagy’, which comes from the Greek word mean­ing self-eat­ing.

In what the jury de­scribed as a “series of bril­liant ex­per­i­ments in the early 1990s”, Oh­sumi used baker’s yeast to iden­tify genes es­sen­tial for au­tophagy.

He then went on to ex­plain the un­der­ly­ing mech­a­nisms for au­tophagy in yeast and showed that sim­i­lar so­phis­ti­cated ma­chin­ery is used in hu­man cells.

Oh­sumi’s find­ings opened the path to un­der­stand­ing the im­por­tance of au­tophagy in many phys­i­o­log­i­cal pro­cesses, such as how the body adapts to star­va­tion or re­sponds to in­fec­tion.

When au­tophagy breaks down, links have been es­tab­lished to Parkin­son’s dis­ease, Type 2 di­a­betes and other dis­or­ders that ap­pear in the el­derly.

In­tense re­search is now un­der­way to de­velop drugs that tar­get au­tophagy in var­i­ous dis­eases.

Oh­sumi, 71, re­ceived a PhD from the Univer­sity of Tokyo in 1974. He is cur­rently a pro­fes­sor at the Tokyo In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

He is the 23rd Ja­panese na­tional to win a No­bel prize, and the sixth Ja­panese medicine lau­re­ate.

The prize comes with a cash re­ward of eight mil­lion Swedish kro­nor (around US$936,000).

“This is the high­est hon­our for a re­searcher,” Oh­sumi told Ja­pan’s public broad­caster NHK.

“My motto is to do what oth­ers don’t want to do. I thought (cel­lu­lar break­down) was very in­ter­est­ing. This is where it all be­gins.

“It didn’t draw much at­ten­tion in the past, but we’re now in a time when there’s a big­ger fo­cus on it.” – AFP

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