Yoshinori Ohsumi wins Nobel Prize for autophagy discovery

3 Oct 2016

Yoshinori Ohsumi. Image: Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Media

The 2016 Nobel Prize winner for physiology or medicine is Yoshinori Ohsumi, for his 1990s work on autophagy, discovering the mechanism behind the process.

Autophagy is the process of ‘self-eating’ that cells go through, destroying their own contents and recycling certain components.

First discussed in the 1960s, it wasn’t until Yoshinori Ohsumi used baker’s yeast as a tool in the 1990s that genes essential to the process were finally discovered.

Future Human

Referring to his work as part of a “series of brilliant experiments”, the Nobel Foundation said Ohsumi subsequently showed that sophisticated machinery is used in humans cells to achieve autophagy.

Nobel Prize

“I was surprised. I was in my lab.” said Ohsumi of the moment he found out he had won the award.

Autophagy sees a cell destroy its own contents by enclosing it in membranes, forming sack-like vesicles that had been transported to a recycling compartment, called the lysosome, for degradation.

The word was first coined by Christian de Duve in 1963, who ultimately went on to win a Nobel Prize in medicine for his own work in 1974.

“Thanks to Ohsumi and others following in his footsteps, we now know that autophagy controls important physiological functions where cellular components need to be degraded and recycled,” said the Nobel Foundation.

Autophagy can provide fuel for renewal of cells, alleviating against starvation and fighting against viruses and bacteria.

Interestingly, it can also be used to eliminate damaged proteins, “a quality control mechanism critical to counteracting the negative consequences of ageing,” according to the Nobel Foundation.

Linked to Parkinson’s disease and type 2 diabetes, Ohsumi’s work has helped focus scientists on ways to develop drugs to fight these diseases.

The sixth winner of a Nobel Prize in medicine to come from Japan, Ohsumi is the 23rd Japanese winner overall. He follows in the footsteps of Satoshi Ōmura, who shared a prize last year with Ireland’s William Campbell.

The duo’s work lead to the development of a drug called Avermectin, which has seen the creation of derivatives that have “radically lowered the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis”, according to the Nobel Foundation.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic