Japan’s Osumi earns Nobel for explaining how cells recycle

Yoshinori Osumi’s research revealing how cells recycle components such as proteins earned the Japanese biologist the 2016 Nobel Prize in medicine, and his work could hold the key to new treatments for cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Osumi, an honorary professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, “discovered and elucidated mechanisms underlying autophagy, a fundamental process for degrading and recycling cellular components,” the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet said Monday in announcing the award for work in physiology or medicine.

“Though I dreamed of a Nobel Prize when I was young,” such an award “has been out of my mind since I began research,” Osumi told reporters Monday. “There is no greater joy as a fundamental biologist” than to have “my work recognized as a cornerstone of autophagy research.”

Autophagy is the process by which cells break down unnecessary or damaged proteins and molecules into their component parts, rebuilding them into new structures — a function necessary for life.

The discovery that proteins were being broken down within cells came in the 1960s, though the mechanism responsible remained opaque. After setting up his laboratory in 1988, Osumi became the first to observe the process in yeast. This work led to the discovery of 15 genes key to autophagy — “paradigm-shifting” research in the early 1990s demonstrating the phenomenon’s “fundamental importance in physiology and medicine,” according to the prize committee.

Scientists such as Noboru Mizushima, a former Osumi lab mate now at the University of Tokyo, have since identified key autophagy genes in mammals. That work has sparked research linking the process to human ailments such as neurodegenerative diseases and cancers. Autophagy also has been shown to play a role in infectious diseases and lifestyle-related illnesses.

Such results are now being used to develop new therapies. Clinical trials are underway in Europe and the U.S. for cancer treatments using existing drugs to rein in overactive autophagy, for example.

Thanks to Osumi and his colleagues, Japan leads the world in autophagy research as measured by academic citations. A Nobel win was regarded as simply a matter of time.

Osumi will be honored at the Nobel ceremony Dec. 10 and receive 8 million Swedish kronor ($934,400) in prize money. He is the 25th Japanese Nobel winner — including naturalized U.S. citizens — in any field, and the fourth in the medicine or physiology category.

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