Japan’s Yoshinori Ohsumi wins Nobel Prize in Medicine

AFP, STOCKHOLM

Tue, Oct 04, 2016 - Page 1

Yoshinori Ohsumi of Japan yesterday won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his pioneering work on autophagy — a process whereby cells “eat themselves” — which, when disrupted, can cause Parkinson’s disease 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 Prize in Medicine in 1974.

It was de Duve who coined the term “autophagy,” which comes from Greek, 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 elderly people.

Intense research is now under way to develop drugs that target autophagy in various diseases.

Ohsumi, 71, received a doctoral degree from the University of Tokyo in 1974. He is a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

He is the 23rd Japanese to win a Nobel prize, and the sixth Japanese medicine laureate.

The prize comes with 8 million Swedish kronor (US$936,000).

“This is the highest honor for a researcher,” Ohsumi told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK.

“My motto is to do what others do not want to do. I thought [cellular breakdown] was very interesting. This is where it all begins. It did not draw much attention in the past, but we are now in a time when there is a bigger focus on it,” Ohsumi added.

The medicine prize is awarded by the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, which has seen its reputation tarnished over a recent scandal involving Italian surgeon Paolo Macchiarini.

In 2011, while working as a visiting professor at Karolinska, Macchiarini soared to fame for inserting the first synthetic trachea, or windpipe, using patients’ stem cells.

His work was initially hailed as a game-changer for transplant medicine. However, two patients died and a third was left severely ill.

Allegations ensued that the risky procedure had been carried out on at least one individual who had not, at the time, been critically ill.