The 2016 Nobel Prize in Medicine has gone to Japanese scientist Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi for his groundbreaking research on how cells break down and recycle their contents.
The research work conducted by Dr. Ohsumi has far-reaching implications in the therapeutic manipulation of the metabolic process involved in cancer, diabetes and neurologic disorders. For almost three decades, Dr. Ohsumi, a cell biologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology has characterized autophagy, or ‘self-eating’, in baker's yeast and has demonstrated that it works almost the same way in human cells.
Autophagy is essential for cell survival in a number of ways. It serves as a recycling service for damaged proteins and organelles. But these metabolic processes can go awry, particularly when cellular waste goes un-recycled and accumulates. Disruptions in autophagy have been linked to cancer as well as disorders such as Parkinson's disease and type 2 diabetes that develop with aging.
The research work of Dr. Ohsumi points to potential possible therapies by identifying the genes that code for autophagy and the chain reaction of proteins and protein complexes that carry it out. This knowledge gives researchers clues on how to manipulate the process through drugs and gene therapy. A related study showed that a protein which promotes autophagy helped repair damaged heart tissue in mice after myocardial infarction.