STOCKHOLM • Japanese researcher Yoshinori Ohsumi's Nobel prize- winning work on autophagy - a process in which cells "eat themselves" and recycle some parts - could lead to a better understanding and possible treatment of a range of diseases, from cancer to diabetes to Parkinson's.
Autophagy is essential for the orderly degradation and recycling of damaged cell parts - a natural defence human bodies use to survive. Its failure is believed to be responsible for ageing and cell damage, and Dr Ohsumi, 71, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, located the genes that regulate this "self-eating" process.
"Ohsumi's discoveries led to a new paradigm in our understanding of how the cell recycles its content," the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said in a statement yesterday on awarding the prize for medicine, or physiology - the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year.
"Mutations in autophagy ('self- eating') genes can cause disease, and the autophagic process is involved in several conditions, including cancer and neurological disease," the statement said.
"His discoveries opened the path to understanding... many physiological processes, such as in the adaptation to starvation or response to infection," it added.
Autophagy has been known since the 1960s but it wasn't until the early 1990s when Dr Ohsumi used baker's yeast to identify genes essential for the process that the breakthrough in understanding was made.
"I am a rather carefree person and I do not usually get stressed out," Dr Ohsumi, who received a PhD from the University of Tokyo in 1974, told Japan broadcaster NHK last night.
"This, I thought, was an asset for me as a scientist. I have been studying this topic for 271/2 years and I have yet to fully understand the mechanism. There is still a lot of room for further study."
Prof David Rubinsztein, an expert in autophagy at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC he was delighted that Dr Ohsumi's vital work had been rewarded. "His laboratory's discoveries have also provided the critical tools to many labs to enable the appreciation of the important roles of autophagy in diverse physiological and disease processes," he said.
"These include infectious diseases, cancers and various neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's disease and forms of Parkinson's disease. Indeed, autophagy manipulation may provide a key strategy for treating some of these conditions."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS