Japanese Scientist Wins 2016 Nobel Medicine Prize

Yoshinori Ohsumi

Yoshinori Ohsumi

Yoshinori Ohsumi won the 2016 Nobel prize for medicine or physiology for his discovery of mechanisms for degrading and recycling cellular components, the award-giving body said on Monday.

“Ohsumi’s discoveries led to a new paradigm in our understanding of how the cell recycles its content,” the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said in a statement in awarding the prize of 8 million Swedish crowns ($933,000).

“His discoveries opened the path to understanding … many physiological processes, such as in the adaptation to starvation or response to infection,” the statement added.

The prize for Physiology or Medicine is the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year. Prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.

If you’re having trouble grasping autophagy (or even pronouncing the word) here’s an interpretation of the process from dancers at the University of Michigan. It’s quite a thing.

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Ohsumi, 71, has been talking to the Japanese broadcaster NHK. In a live phone interview, he said he was “extremely honoured” to have won the prize. When asked why he decided to study autophagy, he replied:

I wanted to do something different from other people. I thought auto-decomposition was going to be an interesting topic.

He added that the “human body is always repeating the auto-decomposition process, or cannibalism, and there is a fine balance between formation and decomposition. That’s what life is about.”

The prize has gone down well with David Rubinsztein, professor of molecular neurogenetics at Cambridge University. He studies autophagy, and one branch of his research looks at whether ramping up autophagy in cells can help keep neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s at bay. The work comes from the discovery that autophagy can get rid of proteins that can wreak havoc by clumping together in cells. Here’s what he had to say:

I’m very happy he’s got this year’s Nobel prize, it’s very well deserved. There are many other people who’ve made important contributions in the field, but I’m very comfortable he’s the sole winner.

Rubinsztein said the work highlighted how basic research in model organisms – in this case, yeast – can lead to the creation of whole new fields and fresh insights into human disease.

It shows the importance of basic science and it shows you can make great discoveries that transform a field by starting in a model system like yeast. So when people worry about what should science funding be used for, it’s very difficult to predict what’s ultimately going to come up trumps, and by being restrictive, or penalising people who work on model systems that don’t look like they’re obviously related to human disease, you risk hampering the development of that field. You have to think of science in a holistic way, and understand that key discoveries that can be truly transformative can be made maybe more easily in these systems. It’s a really nice example of how basic science in a model system can be truly transformative.

In the years since autophagy research began, scientists have worked out that it is essential for survival. Ohsumi wrote a history of the field in 2014, by which time it had become one of the hottest topics in biology. He describes how streptococcus and salmonella bacteria that infect cells can be dealt with by the autophagy process. Meanwhile other pathogens, such as listeria and shigella, escape destruction.

Here is why autophagy matters, courtesy of the Nobel Foundation:

We now know that autophagy controls important physiological functions where cellular components need to be degraded and recycled. Autophagy can rapidly provide fuel for energy and building blocks for renewal of cellular components, and is therefore essential for the cellular response to starvation and other types of stress. After infection, autophagy can eliminate invading intracellular bacteria and viruses. Autophagy contributes to embryo development and cell differentiation. Cells also use autophagy to eliminate damaged proteins and organelles, a quality control mechanism that is critical for counteracting the negative consequences of ageing.

Disrupted autophagy has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and other disorders that appear in the elderly. Mutations in autophagy genes can cause genetic disease. Disturbances in the autophagic machinery have also been linked to cancer. Intense research is now ongoing to develop drugs that can target autophagy in various diseases.

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