Yoshinori Ohsumi—The Joy of Finding Something New
Yoshinori Ohsumi—The Joy of Finding Something New

Yoshinori Ohsumi—The Joy of Finding Something New

Yoshinori Ohsumi (Ph.D.), Professor at Institute of Innovative Research – Tokyo Institute of Technology; This year’s Nobel Prize laureate in Medicine.

This year’s winner for the Japanese Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine is Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Cell biologist from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, on his discoveries of mechanisms for Autophagy.


Mr. Yoshinori Ohsumi, an Honorable Professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Tokyo is this year’s Nobel Prize winner for Physiology (Medicine) for discovering and elucidating mechanisms for autophagy, a fundamental process for degrading and recycling cellular components. Professor Ohsumi admitted that he never dreamed that his study of yeast would someday “serve any practical purposes” when he started it alone 28 years ago.

The word autophagy originates from the Greek words auto-, meaning “self”, and phagein, meaning “to eat”, hence, “self-eating”.

Autophagy is the process by which cells capture large dysfunctional proteins, aging organelles, and invading pathogens in vesicles and then send them to the lysosome for degradation. Without autophagy our cells won’t survive. During starvation, cells break down proteins and nonessential components and reuse them for energy. Cells also use autophagy to destroy invading viruses and bacteria, sending them off for recycling. And cells use autophagy to get rid of damaged structures. The process is thought to go awry in cancer, infectious diseases, immunological diseases and neurodegenerative disorders. Disruptions in autophagy are also thought to play a role in aging.

The work of Professor Ohsumi led to a new field and inspired hundreds of researchers around the world to study the process and opened a new area of inquiry.

Did you know?

Other Japanese Nobel Prize winners in physiology or medicine

In 1987, Susumu Tonegawa won the first Nobel prize in physiology and medicine on his discovery of the genetic principle for the generation of anti body diversity. Following his Nobel Prize, he switched fields to neuroscience, where his research and discoveries show how the role of enzymes and synaptic protein play crucial roles in memory formation. Being an adopter of optogenetics and biotechnological research, this led him to ground breaking work of identifying and manipulating Memory Engram Cells and their role in memory valence, as well as other brain disorders such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease and Amnesia.

Shinya Yamanaka, in October 2012, shared the Nobel Prize for his discovery on mature cells’ ability to be reprogrammed and become pluripotent, with John B. Gordon, a fellow cell biologist.

In 2015, Satoshi Omura, alongside William C. Campbell and Tu Youyou, won the Nobel Prize for his discovery concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by the roundworm parasite. His research worked on isolating a strain of the Streptomyces avermitilis that produced the anti-parasitical compound Avermectin, which later on was acquired by Campbell to derive the drug known as Ivermectin which is used till this day against several parasitical infections such as River Blindness.

Although the concept emerged during the 1960’s, nobody knew how the system worked.

In a series of experiments in the early 1990’s, Yoshinori Ohsumi used baker’s yeast to identify genes essential for autophagy. Disrupted autophagy has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and other disorders that appear in the elderly. Intense research is now ongoing to develop drugs that can target autophagy in various diseases. The work of Professor Ohsumi led to a new field and inspired hundreds of researchers around the world to study the process and opened a new area of inquiry.

Yeast vacuole in a state of starvation, as seen with an electron microscope. The large white circles inside the cell are vacuoles and we know that a portion of the cellular material is found inside them. / Credits: Institute of Innovative Research - Tokyo Institute of Technology.
Yeast vacuole in a state of starvation, as seen with an electron microscope. The large white circles inside the cell are vacuoles and we know that a portion of the cellular material is found inside them. / Credits: Institute of Innovative Research – Tokyo Institute of Technology.

During a news conference, Professor said that in Japan today scientists often face pressure to achieve quick results “that are useful for something”. He admitted that the total amount of public funds allocated for fundamental scientific research in Japan is “absolutely insufficient.”

During a news conference, Professor said that in Japan today scientists often face pressure to achieve quick results “that are useful for something”. He admitted that the total amount of public funds allocated for fundamental scientific research in Japan is “absolutely insufficient.”

“I have a strong sense of crisis. Science in Japan will ‘hollow out’” unless support systems are established to boost long-term research, he said.

“In that sense, Japanese universities are very poor,” he said. Mr. Yoshinori Ohsumi, who is also known for his love for Sake (Japanese rice wine) also joked about how hard it was for his wife to believe him when he got news of him being the winner of the Japanese Nobel prize for Physiology.
 
Being a joker after a couple glasses of good Sake, he would always tell funny and sometimes incredible stories.

And him being the Nobel Prize winner sounded like just another one of his many interesting tales.

Yoshinori Ohsumi

Yoshinori Ohsumi, was born on the 9th of February, 1945 in Fukuoka. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo in 1974. After spending three years at Rockefeller University, New York, USA, he returned to the University of Tokyo where he established his research group in 1988. He is since 2009 a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

He is the fourth, in his field to become a Japanese Nobel Laureate.


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