The Discovery of Cellular Component Self-eating Mechanisms Won 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine

By: Prof. Sherif El-Khamisy, Director of Center for Genomics

Yoshinori Ohsumi

Yoshinori Ohsumi

The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine to Yoshinori Ohsumi, professor of biology at Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan, for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy.

Our cells are equipped with multiple mechanisms to repair damage to precious biological molecules that make up our identity such as DNA, RNA, and proteins. If damage goes beyond repair our body utilizes internal recycling machines to “scrap” damaged cell components and make use of it to generate energy, in a process called autophagy.

Autophagy is a Greek word means self-eating, whereby cellular junk is captured and sealed in sack-like membranes and transported to the cellular rubbish bin (lysosomes) for destruction. This process is fundamental for preventing cancer, fighting infection and mental health disorders such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s, and for maintaining a healthy metabolism.

Ohsumi studied this process in yeast cells and identified the main genes involved in it, and showed how the proteins they code for come together to build the sealed sacks in preparation for their destruction. His group then showed a similar cellular recycling process in human cells. Ohsumi paradigm-shifting research is the reason behind all the ongoing research to develop drugs that can target autophagy in various diseases.

Researchers at the Center for Genomics at Zewail City study how cells repair damage to macromolecules using both yeast and human cells, and examine their impact on human disease. Repairing the damage is not sufficient to maintain health but must also be coupled to efficient recycling machines to constantly make use and recycle our “garbage”. Thanks to Ohsumi for his illuminating discoveries, which pave the way to a deeper insight into disease onset and progression.