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Medicine Nobel Prize for Japanese Biologist
Oct 05, 2016

Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won 2016 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.

  • He received the prize for research that led to the understanding of Autophagy and its role in many physiological processes, including a response to starvation and to infection.
  • His work on the machinery of Autophagy (self-eating) explains how cellular components are being degraded and recycled.• Because of autophagy, cells turn waste into fuel for energy and building blocks for renewal of cellular components.
  • The award comes with a check for eight million Swedish kronor ($930,000).
  • Dr. Ohsumi, born in 1945 in Fukuoka, Japan, has been a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology since 2009.
  • He received a Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo in 1974.

What is Autophagy?

  • Autophagy, or self-eating, the process allows cells to survive periods of stress or starvation or to adapt to changing conditions or needs.
  • Autophagy is a process by which cells degrade some of their own contents and clear them away or recycle them.
  • In his research, Dr. Ohsumi identified the first genes essential for autophagy in yeast and subsequently helped describe how the process works in humans and animals.
  • The knowledge may be useful in developing treatments for such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer.
  • Failures in autophagy have been linked to both cancer and neuro-degenerative diseases.
  • Dr. Ohsumi purposely chose the ‘garbage collection’ of the body’s cells as the subject of his life’s work, hoping to avoid competition.
  • His research area was important because cells couldn’t function without ‘quality control’ and a way of shedding and recycling substances it no longer needed. Life is possible only with this extremely important recycling system.
  • He 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.
  • Dr. Ohsumi’s genetic discoveries in yeast provided researchers with ways to manipulate autophagy in laboratory experiments and potentially in people in attempt to prevent its decline.

Last year, Irish-born William Campbell of the US, Satoshi Omura of Japan and China's Tu Youyou won the prestigious award for their discoveries of treatments against parasites.

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