Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi has won this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for elucidating how the body’s cells deal with and recycle waste.
His research opened the path to understanding the fundamental importance of autophagy – which literally means “self-eating” – in many physiological processes, such as in the adaptation to starvation or response to infection, the Nobel committee for physiology or medicine said in a press release.
Mutations in autophagy genes can cause disease, and the autophagic process is involved in several conditions including cancer and neurological disease, the statement said.
The knowledge may be useful in developing treatments for such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The concept of autophagy emerged during the 1960s, when researchers first observed that the cell could destroy its own contents by enclosing it in membranes, forming sack-like vesicles that were transported to a recycling compartment, called the lysosome, for degradation.
Difficulties in studying the phenomenon meant that little was known until, in a series of brilliant experiments in the early 1990s, 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, the committee said.
The award, announced on Monday by the Nobel committee in Stockholm, comes with a check for eight million Swedish kronor (US$930,000), the newspaper said.
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