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Hard Science

Self-Cannibalization: Nobel Prize In Medicine Goes To “Self-Eating” Cells

It could revolutionize everything from Type 2 diabetes to Alzheimer’s.

Jess VilvestreOctober 6th 2016

The Nobel prize in medicine was awarded to cellular biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi for his research in autophagy, a vital mechanism of biological cells by which they digest and recycle waste. Ohsumi’s work is a vital discovery in biomedicine that is the foundation to many forms of treatment.

Autophagy literally means “self-eating.” It was first observed in the 1960s, when researchers observed that living cells “recycled” its own waste, destroying subcellular parts of itself and transporting them to other regions of the cell. Studying these mechanisms was difficult, and very little was known about them until Ohsumi’s groundbreaking experiments in the early 1990s.

The Japanese biologist used baker’s yeast to elucidate the mechanism of autophagy in yeast, identifying genes essential in the cell’s waste-processing system.

Ohsumi’s work led to a new paradigm in understanding the cell. It was the first time the sophisticated machinery of the complex living cell was revealed. And ultimately, it led to an amazing influx of publications regarding this mechanism.

nobel
Proof that studies from 2016 Nobel Laureate Yoshinori Ohsumi generated a massive amount of research into autophagy. (Credit: Nobel Assembly)

Degradation and the processing of waste is a vital mechanism of our body. Autophagy can eliminate bacteria and viruses after infections. It can rapidly provide fuel for energy and building blocks for renewal of cellular components. It could give us a way to make Parkinson’s disease drugs that work by controlling autophagy and cleaning up cellular clutter. It could provide new ways of fighting Diabetes and a host of other diseases.

Of course, those advancements are still some ways off, but Ohsumi’s work has forever changed the landscape of medicine in the 21st century, and it will likely lead people to longer and healthier lives.

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