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