Japanese Biologist Wins Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine

Oct 3, 2016
Originally published on October 3, 2016 11:24 am

Yoshinori Ohsumi of the Tokyo Institute of Technology has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries about "autophagy" — a fundamental process cells use to degrade and recycle parts of themselves.

Ohsumi, 71, is a professor emeritus at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Yokohama, Japan. As the sole winner, Ohsumi will receive more than $930,000.

Ohsumi's work opened the path to understanding how cells adapt to starvation and respond to infection, according to statement from the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute.

Mutations in the genes that control autophagy can lead to a variety of conditions, including cancer, type 2 diabetes and neurological diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimers, according to the announcement.

Autophagy, a term that comes from Greek words for "self-eating," is a basic process cells need to function properly.

"Without autophagy, our cells won't survive," says Juleen Zierath, who chaired the committee that selected Ohsumi. "We need autophagy to ward off invading molecules, for example, to deal with very large proteins that might be long-lived or defective. But we also need autophagy for renewal."

Scientists had known about autophagy since the 1960s, but the process had been very difficult to study, according to the Nobel announcement. So the exact machinery involved was unknown, as was how the system worked and whether it was involved in disease.

Before Ohsumi's work, scientists knew there was a structure inside cells that was considered the equivalent of a "waste dump," Zierath says.

"What he showed was that it wasn't a waste dump. It was a recycling plant. This was a really sophisticated machinery that recycled damaged or long-lived proteins," Zierath says.

Ohsumi showed this by conducting a series of "brilliant" experiments in the 1990s using chemically modified baker's yeast to identify key genes that are essential for autophagy, according to the Nobel announcement. These experiments enabled Ohsumi to decipher the complex series of chemical signals and events involved in the process. He then went on to show that similar sophisticated machinery is used in human cells.

"Ohsumi's discoveries led to a new paradigm in our understanding of how the cell recycles its content," according to the announcement. "Intense research is now ongoing to develop drugs that can target autophagy in various diseases."

Ohsumi and the winners of the remaining 2016 Nobel prizes will receive their awards at a ceremony in Stockholm Dec. 10.

"All I can say is, it's such an honor," Ohsumi told reporters at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, according to the Japanese broadcaster NHK. "I'd like to tell young people that not all can be successful in science, but it's important to rise to the challenge."

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The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced this morning in Stockholm. The Nobel assembly at the Karolinska Institute announced a Japanese scientist as the sole winner this year. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to talk about the award-winning research. Good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Who is the winner?

STEIN: His name is Yoshinori Ohsumi. He's 71 years old, and he's now at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

MONTAGNE: And he won for his work in two basic cell biology, I gather. But what exactly did he do?

STEIN: The Nobel Assembly says he discovered and explained a process that most people probably have never heard of, but is really important. It's called a autophagy. The term comes from the Greek words for self-eating. That's because it's a basic process that our cells use to break down and reuse parts of themselves to function. It's crucial for allowing cells to work properly.

MONTAGNE: So can - cells consuming themselves. How did he do this exactly?

STEIN: So scientists knew about this process since the 1960s, but it was very difficult to study. What Ohsumi did was what the Assembly is calling a brilliant series of experiments in the 1990s. He used baker's yeast to identify key genes, genes that are essential for autophagy. The Nobel Assembly says this was a major breakthrough. It enabled him to decipher the complex series of chemical signals and events involved in this process. He then went on to show that similar sophisticated machinery is used in our own cells.

The Assembly says this work led to a new understanding for how cells recycle their contents.

MONTAGNE: All of which sounds quite important.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this is a fundamental process that cells need to survive, so it's involved in all sorts of things our bodies need to function properly. This is the process our cells use to generate, you know, fuel for energy and building blocks to keep themselves working right. So, for example, this is the process that cells use when the body is starving or subjected to other kinds of stress.

MONTAGNE: And also does it have to do with diseases?

STEIN: Oh, absolutely. Cells use this process to fight off infections with bacteria and viruses. It also contributes to embryonic development, and it's considered a crucial part of the aging process. And when this process gets, you know, kind of messed up somehow, scientists believe it can lead to a long list of diseases - you know, Parkinson's disease, type 2 diabetes, maybe Alzheimer's. And when the genes involved in autophagy get mutated somehow, that can cause genetic disorders, and disturbances in the underlying machinery of autophagy is believed to play a role in cancer.

MONTAGNE: So could this research also then lead to new treatments?

STEIN: Well, the Nobel Assembly says, yes, there's a lot of really intense research going on right now to try to develop drugs that can target different aspects of this process in all the diseases that I mentioned.

MONTAGNE: Now, did he do all of this - well, he did all of this by himself. How unusual is that?

STEIN: Well, you know, it's not all that unusual for a single scientist to win the Nobel Prize. I mean, it does happen. About a third of the Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine have gone to a single scientist, about a third are split between two scientists and a third are split by three. The good news for Ohsumi is that he doesn't have to share the prize with anyone. It's worth about $930,000.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, not bad. Well, OK, this is the first Nobel Prize being awarded this week. What comes next?

STEIN: Well, tomorrow is the prize for chemistry. Physics is Wednesday. The Peace Prize comes Friday. Economics and literature are next week.

MONTAGNE: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks very much.

STEIN: Oh, sure. Nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.