And the Winner Is: Autophagy?

Yoshinori Ohsumi after hearing he’d won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (photo: Mari Honda)

Japanese microbiologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research into autophagy in the early 90s. Though more than 20 years old, Dr. Ohsumi’s discoveries have opened key doors on incurable diseases such as Parkinson’s and type 2 diabetes.

Autophagy, Greek for “self-eating,” is the cellular process by which cells destroy themselves and recycle old parts. Cells use this process to withstand starvation, destroy viruses and bacteria, and repair old structures. Problems with this process contribute to cognitive decline, cancer, aging, and infectious diseases.

Scientists knew that autophagy existed when Christian de Duve discovered lysosomes in the 1960s. Lysosomes are cellular components that contain enzymes to break down almost all kinds of biomolecules. But nobody knew the genes that initiated autophagy or how it happened. Dr. Ohsumi began studying how cellular components degraded in yeast, and from 1992 to 2000 he published four groundbreaking papers that illuminated this vital cellular process.

"Autophagy was known as a biological phenomenon for a long time before [Ohsumi] started his work on it," Dr. Hitoshi Nakatogawa, a colleague of Dr. Ohsumi's for more than 10 years at Tokyo Institute of Technology, told LifeZette. "But without genes specifically involved in autophagy, [nobody] could ... investigate the physiological roles of autophagy and the underlying mechanisms."

Cells that cannot perform autophagy suffer from serious problems. Cancer cells proliferate uncontrollably because they don't know how to self-destruct. Harmful proteins build up and result in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's because cells cannot eliminate themselves properly. High concentrations of glucose lead to cellular imbalance and stress because autophagy breaks down — leading to diabetes.

Numerous drug companies pounced on the opportunity to capitalize on this research and develop drugs that prevent disease. Novartis, a Swiss drug company, has put years of development into an anti-aging drug called rapamyacin, which can crank up autophagy in cells.

"Soon after his discovery of autophagy genes in yeast, many researchers around the world started to work on autophagy in various organisms," said Nakatogawa. That field has exploded in recent years.

"Autophagy is the most exciting field in cell biology at the current time," said Dr. Jon D. Lane, an autophagy researcher at the University of Bristol. "There is no better field to be in."

Ohsumi's breakthrough speaks to more than just science. Autophagy was an unpopular field when he began studying it, and he didn't know beforehand it would have such vast implications for fighting disease. At the time, his research wasn't seen as a brilliant career move. It has taken 20 years for the Nobel Prize board to recognize his discoveries.

Now he laments that too many scientists are playing it safe in their research. "Young scientists want to get a stable job, so they are afraid to take risks," he told the Journal of Cell Biology. "Most people decide to work on the most popular field because they think that is the easiest way to get a paper published."

"It's such an honor," he said, speaking of the award Monday morning at a press conference in Tokyo. Then he gave some advice to the rising generation of scientists: "It's important to rise to the challenge."

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In an interview at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he said, "There is still much we do not know about the mechanism of autophagy, and this calls for serious study. I hope to go onto study autophagy at the molecular level, to tackle the mechanism head-on. That is my mission."

Last Modified: October 4, 2016, 11:58 am

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