Ja­panese bi­ol­o­gist wins No­bel Prize in medicine

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Ar­i­ana Eunjung Cha and Anna Fifield

Ja­panese bi­ol­o­gist Yoshi­nori Oh­sumi was awarded the 2016 No­bel Prize in medicine on Mon­day for dis­cov­er­ing and elu­ci­dat­ing a key mech­a­nism in our body’s de­fense sys­tem that in­volves de­grad­ing and re­cy­cling parts of cells. Known as au­tophagy, this process plays an im­por­tant role in cancer, Alzheimer’s, Type 2 di­a­betes, birth de­fects from the Zika virus and nu­mer­ous other dev­as­tat­ing dis­eases.

In mak­ing the an­nounce­ment, the prize com­mit­tee in Stock­holm said the work in­volves a se­ries of “bril­liant ex­per­i­ments” in the 1990s in­volv­ing baker’s yeast that have helped ex­plain how a cell, the small­est unit of life, adapts in re­sponse to stresses such as star­va­tion and in­fec­tion.

In study­ing thou­sands of yeast mu­tants, Oh­sumi iden­ti­fied 15 genes es­sen­tial for au­tophagy. It turned out that vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal mech­a­nisms ex­ist in hu- man cells as well.

“His dis­cov­er­ies opened the path to un­der­stand­ing the fun­da­men­tal im­por­tance of au­tophagy in many phys­i­o­log­i­cal pro­cesses, such as in the adap­ta­tion to star­va­tion or re­sponse to in­fec­tion,” the No­bel com­mit­tee wrote. “Mu­ta­tions in au­tophagy genes can cause dis­ease, and the au­tophagic process is in­volved in sev­eral con­di­tions in­clud­ing cancer and neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­ease.”

Au­tophagy, which means “self- eat­ing” in Greek, is a process of cell re­newal that re­moves dam­aged pro­teins and or­ganelles. When this process fails, it can speed up cell ag­ing and causes dis­eases as­so­ci­ated with ag­ing. On the flip side, too much au­tophagy can pro­mote growth of tu­mor cells in cancer and re­sis­tance to treat­ments.

Oh­sumi, who is 71 and now serves as pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Tokyo In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, called the prize the “great­est source of joy and pride” for a sci­en­tist.

“Look­ing into bod­ily pro­cesses, I found that we have an on­go­ing re­newal process with­out which liv­ing or­gan­isms can’t survive,” Oh­sumi told NHK, the Ja­panese pub­lic broad­caster, shortly af­ter the an­nounce­ment. “This re­cy­cling process did not re­ceive as much at­ten­tion as it de­served, but I dis­cov­ered that we should be pay­ing more at­ten­tion to this au­tophagy process.”

The No­bel com­mit­tee noted that “au­tophagy has been known for over 50 years.” But its fun­da­men­tal im­por­tance in phys­i­ol­ogy and medicine “was only rec­og­nized af­ter Yoshi­nori Oh­sumi’s par­a­digm-shift­ing re­search.”

Last year’s No­bel Prize in medicine went to a trio of sci­en­tists for their work in par­a­sitic dis­eases. Wil­liam Camp­bell of the United States and Satoshi Omura of Ja­pan helped de­velop a treat­ment that led to a sharp de­cline in river blind­ness, and China’s Youyou Tu dis­cov­ered the malaria drug artemisinin.

The award comes with a prize worth about $937,000.

KEN ISHII/GETTY

Yoshi­nori Oh­sumi made dis­cov­er­ies in a process that plays a role in var­i­ous dis­eases.

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