Noble Prize 2016 in Medicine to Yoshinori Ohsumi

Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the Noble prize in Physiology and Medicine for the year 2016 for his discoveries of mechanism of autophagy.

Autophagy is a process where cell recycles part of its own content.Yoshinori Ohsumi is from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Autophagy was a known fact among scientists since 1960’s but very little was known about how it worked. Ohsumi ‘s experiments with bakers yeast in 1990’s led to understanding autophagy.

The word autophagy originates from the Greek words auto-, meaning “self”, and phagein, meaning “to eat”. Thus,autophagy denotes “self eating”. Autophagy is a process where cell recycles part of its own content. Yoshinori Ohsumi is from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Autophagy was a known fact among scientists since 1960’s but very little was known about how it worked. Ohsumi ‘s experiments with bakers yeast in 1990’s led to understanding autophagy.Difficulties in studying the phenomenon meant that little was known until, in a series of brilliant experiments in the early 1990’s, Yoshinori Ohsumi used baker’s yeast to identify genes essential for autophagy. He then went on to elucidate the underlying mechanisms for autophagy in yeast and showed that similar sophisticated machinery is used in our cells.

His discoveries has led to understand fundamental importance of autophagy in many physiological processes, such as in the adaptation to starvation or response to infection. Mutations in autophagy genes can cause disease, and the autophagic process is involved in several conditions including cancer and neurological disease.

Disrupted autophagy has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and other disorders that appear in the elderly. Mutations in autophagy genes can cause genetic disease. Disturbances in the autophagic machinery have also been linked to cancer. Intense research is now ongoing to develop drugs that can target autophagy in various diseases.

Speaking to reporters in Tokyo on Monday, Ohsumi said: “As a boy, the Nobel Prize was a dream, but after starting my research, it was out of my picture.”

He said he chose to focus on the cell’s waste disposal system, an unfashionable subject at the time, because he wanted to work on something different.

“I don’t feel comfortable competing with many people, and instead I find it more enjoyable doing something nobody else is doing,” he added. “In a way, that’s what science is all about, and the joy of finding something inspires me.”

Last year, the prize was shared by three scientists for discoveries that helped doctors fight malaria and infections caused by roundworm parasites.

Autophagy has been known for over 50 years but its fundamental importance in physiology and medicine was only recognized after Yoshinori Ohsumi’s paradigm-shifting research in the 1990’s. For his discoveries, he is awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

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