Yoshinori Ohsumi of Japan on Monday won the Nobel Medicine Prize for his work on autophagy — a process whereby cells “eat themselves” — which when disrupted can cause Parkinson’s and diabetes.
Autophagy is a fundamental process in cell physiology with major implications for human health and disease.
The process is essential for the orderly degradation and recycling of damaged cell parts and its failure is believed to be responsible for ageing and cell damage.
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.
“Difficulties in studying the phenomenon meant that little was known until, in a series of brilliant experiments in the early 1990s, Yoshinori 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 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,” it added.
Ohsumi, 71, received a PhD from the University of Tokyo in 1974. He is currently a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
The prize comes with eight million Swedish kronor (around $936,000 or 834,000 euros).
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.