A Nobel Prize for the describing the details of autophagy

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.


The term autophagy was coined in 1963 by Belgian scientist Christian de Duve, who shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in medicine for discoveries on cell structure and organization.

But before Ohsumi’s research, scientists “didn’t know what it did, they didn’t know how it was controlled and they didn’t know what it was relevant for,” said David Rubinsztein, deputy director of the Institute for Medical Research at the University of Cambridge.

Now “we know that autophagy is important for a host of important mammalian functions.” For example, it protects against starvation in the period when a newborn animal hasn’t yet started breastfeeding, by providing energy, he said.

It also removes proteins that clump together abnormally in brain cells, which is important in conditions like Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases and some forms of dementia. If autophagy didn’t do that job, “the diseases would appear more early and be more aggressive,” he said.

Animal studies suggest that boosting autophagy can ease and delay such diseases, said Rubinsztein, whose lab is pursuing that approach for therapy.

“As time goes on, people are finding connections with more and more diseases” and normal cellular operations, he said.

The fundamental significance of autophagy was only recognized after Ohsumi’s “paradigm-shifting research” on yeast in the 1990s, the Nobel committee said. It said he published his “seminal discovery” of 15 genes crucial to autophagy in 1993, and cloned several of those genes in yeast and mammalian cells in subsequent studies.

“He actually unraveled which are the components which actually perform this whole process,” Rune Toftgard, chairman of the Nobel Assembly, said.

Deficiencies in autophagy are linked to diseases associated with aging like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as with Type 2 diabetes, Toftgard said. Researchers are now trying to find out whether such diseases can be fought by boosting or suppressing the process.

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