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Yoshinori Ohsumi wins Nobel Prize in Medicine for autophagy work

Receives the accolade for his discoveries of mechanisms for the cell process
Yoshinori Ohsumi Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy.

Ohsumi becomes the 107th recipient of the prize, which was dedicated by founder Alfred Nobel to “the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine”.

His discoveries of the mechanisms of autophagy - where cells destroy and recycle their contents - began with a series experiments using baker's yeast in the early 1990s.

In 1993 he discovered the gene that controls this process and went on to clarify how autophagy controls important physiological functions where cellular components need to be degraded and recycled, finding that our own cells follow virtually identical mechanisms as discovered in the yeast.

Autophagy - literally meaning “to self eat” - is an essential cellular response to starvation and other types of stress on the body, as it can rapidly provide fuel for the renewal of cells.

Cases where this process has been disrupted have been found in people with neurological disorders such as Parkinsons' disease as well as type 2 diabetes and other genetic diseases.

Similarly, mutations in autophagy genes have been linked with various cancers, with Ohsumi's work prompting current research into developing drugs that can target this mechanism.

Though known to scientists since the 1960s, understanding of the importance of autophagy as a sophisticated recycling centre relied upon to replace upwards of 200g of protein per day - rather than merely a damaged cell disposal unit - was not made clear until Ohsumi's experiments and analysis.

Speaking with Japanese broadcaster NHK at the Tokyo Institute of Technology where he is an honorary professor, Ohsumi said it was a “great honour” to have won this year's prize in physiology and medicine.

Of his work in autophagy, he added: “The human body is always repeating the auto-decomposition process, or cannibalism, and there is a fine balance between formation and decomposition. That's what life is about.”

Article by
Rebecca Clifford

3rd October 2016

From: Research

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