Health In Focus
  • The Nobel prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace have been awarded since 1901, as per the will of Alfred Nobel.
  • 2016 Nobel Prize for Medicine awarded to Japanese microbiologist Yoshinori Ohsumi who unravelled cell recycling system
  • Ohsumi’s work has helped explain critical processes in human development

Japanese microbiologist Yoshinori Ohsumi has won the 2016 Nobel prize for Medicine or Physiology for his path breaking work on autophagy or self-eating. It is awarded by the Karolinska Institute, Sweden.

Ohsumi's Work on Autophagy
Nobel Prize 2016 in Medicine Goes to Yoshinori Ohsumi for Work on Autophagy

The concept of autophagy or self-eating was first described in the 1960's, when scientists first noticed that the cell was capable of destroying its contents by forming membrane bound vesicles, which were then transported to an organelle called the lysosome for degradation.

Due to limitations in studying the phenomenon, very little was known until the early 1990's, when Yoshinori Ohsumi, in a series of imaginative experiments, used baker's yeast to isolate genes involved in autophagy. He later went on to clarify the mechanisms underlying autophagy in yeast and showed that a similar sophisticated machinery existed in human cells too.

Though autophagy has been known for over 50 years, its primary importance in physiology and medicine was only realized after Yoshinori Ohsumi's pioneering research in the 1990's. In recognition of his work, he has been awarded the Nobel prize for Medicine for the year 2016.

Role of Autophagy in Health and Disease

Autophagy forms an important component of our body's defense mechanisms, wherein cells break down and recycle their components. It is a basic physiologic process, which can impact human health and causation of disease. During autophagy, damaged parts of the cell are broken down and recycled.
  • Autophagy provides food for energy and the building blocks for restoration of cellular components, and is thus critical for the cellular response to starvation and other types of stress.
  • Following infection, autophagy can help to eliminate invading intracellular microbes.
  • It contributes to development of the embryo and cell differentiation.
  • Cells also use autophagy to get rid of damaged proteins and organelles, a cellular defense mechanism that is necessary to counter the negative effects of aging.
Disruptions in this process or mutations involving the autophagy genes are known to cause diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes and cancer. Serious research is currently going on to develop treatment targeting autophagy in various diseases.

The Nobel Prizes

The Nobel prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace have been awarded since 1901, as per the will of Alfred Nobel, Swedish businessman, who invented dynamite.

Following the announcement of the Nobel prize for medicine, the season continues this week and next with awards in other fields of science and those for peace, literature and economics due to be presented.

What the Scientific Community Has to Say About Ohsumi's Work

David Rubinsztein, deputy director of Cambridge University's Institute for Medical Research, said Ohsumi had provided scientists around the world with "critical tools" to help them understand how disrupted autophagy can contribute to illnesses including infectious diseases, cancers and neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's and Parkinson's.

Chister Hogg, a professor at Sweden's Karolinska Institute, remarked that Ohsumi's work has helped explain critical processes in human development, from growing up, to aging to succumbing to illness.

"In the very early stages (of a human's development) your organs and your whole body is constantly being made over again - you are growing. So you need to get rid of the old stuff and generate new structures," he said.

"When you undergo aging, you have structures that have to be taken away and this - autophagy - is the principle that gets rid of them.

"If you affect this system - the genes and proteins involved in autophagy - you no longer can take care of the waste, and once it accumulates you will get some type of disease."

About Yoshinori Ohsumi

Yoshinori Ohsumi was born in Fukuoka, Japan in 1945. He obtained his Ph.D. from University of Tokyo in 1974. He spent three years at Rockefeller University, New York, USA, following which he returned to the University of Tokyo. Here established his research group in 1988. Since 2009, he has been a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Ohsumi said that he felt "very honored" to be chosen for the award. His research, he said, was inspired by the desire to do something unique.

He is the 25th Japanese to win a Nobel Prize, and the fourth to win the prize for Medicine Ohsumi is expected to be present at the Nobel awards ceremony on December 10 in Stockholm, Sweden, where he will also receive a prize of 8 million kroner (¥95 million).

In March last year, he received an award for his same work on autophagy, namely the 2015 Canada Gairdner International Award.

Source: Medindia

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