A Japanese biologist was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for elucidating how the body’s cells deal with and recycle waste, a discovery that has paved the way for research on treatment for neurological and other diseases.
Yoshinori Ohsumi received the prize, which comes with an 8 million Swedish kronor ($933,000) check, for research that led to understanding of autophagy and its role in many physiological processes, such as the response to infection.
Dr. Ohsumi’s work on the machinery of autophagy—literally “self-eating”— explains how cellular components are being degraded and recycled, Nobel Committee member Juleen Zierath said. Thanks to autophagy, cells turn waste into fuel for energy and building blocks for renewal of cellular components.
“He showed cells were equipped with sophisticated recycling plants,” she said. “It’s a beautiful prize.”
The biologist, who was born in Japan in 1945, also identified genes that regulate the process, opening a new field of research to understand what happens when autophagy is disturbed. Disrupted autophagy has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, Type 2 diabetes and other disorders, Prof. Zierath said.
Although autophagy has been known for over 50 years, its importance wasn’t recognized until Dr. Ohsumi published his research on the subject in the 1990s.
Dr. Ohsumi said he focused his research on a subject that initially drew little interest from other scientists.
“My basic principle is that I want to do things that other people aren’t doing,” Dr. Ohsumi told national broadcaster NHK shortly after the award was announced.
Dr. Ohsumi said the subject of autophagy “wasn’t getting much attention” when he first tackled it decades ago, perhaps because the trash-disposal function of the cell wasn’t as glamorous as other subjects in biology.
“Recycling nutrients is the most basic function of autophagy,” he said. “Degradation is always happening in our bodies. Life doesn’t exist without the parallel relationship between degradation and synthesis.”
The biologist didn’t study autophagy on human cells but on thousands of strains of yeast. Frequently used as a proxy for human cells in labs, yeast cells still posed a challenge because of their small sizes, Prof. Zierath said.
Dr. Ohsumi successfully cultured mutated yeast, finding ways to trigger the autophagic process right when cells were under his microscope.
“He created a really ingenious way to study cells,” she said.
Nobel Committee Secretary-General Thomas Perlmann said he had a chance to speak with Dr. Ohsumi by telephone and share the news.
“He seemed surprised,” Prof. Perlmann said. “The first thing he said was ‘Oh!’”
Last year, the Medicine Prize was awarded for discoveries concerning novel therapies against river blindness, lymphatic filariasis and malaria, diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually
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