Since he was a boy, cellular biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, Ph.D., knew he wanted to become a scientist. What he didn’t know, however, was that one day he’d win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for paradigm-shifting autophagy research.
After dabbling in some more established areas of study, like chemistry, protein synthesis, and in-vitro fertilization, Ohsumi knew he wanted to say yes to something new—something groundbreaking.
I don’t feel comfortable competing with many people, and instead I find it more enjoyable doing something nobody else is doing” — Ohsumi told The Straits Times
So, he focused his attention on cellular biology, specifically autophagy. Greek for “self-eating,” autophagy is the process by which cells recycle their nonessential contents to reuse them for energy. It’s also how they get rid of viruses, bacteria, and damaged components.
When the process doesn’t work as it’s supposed to, it can lead to cancer, genetic diseases, Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and several age-related disorders.
In 1988, he opened his own research lab at the University of Tokyo, where he started studying autophagy in baker’s yeast, which has cellular activity that closely mimics that of humans.
Although autophagy had been known to exist for 50 years, Ohsumi’s research was the first to discover its fundamental importance in physiology and medicine. Though a series of brilliant experiments, he was able to identify the genes that are essential for the process to occur, as well as how mutations in the process play a role in cancer and neurological disease.
“Without him, the whole field doesn’t exist,” Seungmin Hwang, an assistant professor in the department of pathology at the University of Chicago, told The New York Times. “He set up the field.”
Significant research is now going into the development drugs that can target autophagy in various diseases.
“I think it’s very important that this area of science been recognised,” Giovanna Mallucci, a professor of clinical neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian. “The important principle here is going for common mechanisms in disease. It opens up avenues to treating these disorders that are different from more conventional disease-specific approaches.”
But if you ask Ohsumi, this is only the beginning. “I have yet to fully understand the mechanism,” he told The Straits Times. “The cells in living organisms are full of amazing functions, and we have yet to fully elucidate the functions of baker’s yeast. There is still huge room for further study in this area.”