This year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries on how cells eat themselves.
That’s right – Ohsumi conducted experiments in the 1990s on how cells break down and recycle their components, literally eating themselves to remove damaged content and provide building blocks for cell regeneration.
This process is called “autophagy”, a term that was actually coined in 1963 by Belgian scientist Christian de Duve, who also received a Nobel Prize for his work in this area.
So what’s so noteworthy about Ohsumi’s research? His discoveries are significant because he was able to show why this process exists, where it happens, and its different uses in the human body.
For example, we now know that autophagy removes proteins that clump together abnormally in brain cells, like in some forms of dementia. The process also plays a key role in the immune system, where defects can be a common thread across many diseases of aging, from neurodegeneration to cancer. In fact, autophagy defects have been linked to many health conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Researchers are now trying to figure out whether these diseases can be treated with new drugs that boost or suppress the autophagy process. As research in this area progresses, it could completely change the way we treat conditions like dementia, whose cause is still unclear and for which there is currently no cure.
Did you know? The Alzheimer Society supports biomedical and quality of life research through the Alzheimer Society Research Program (ASRP). Since its inception in 1989, the ASRP has funded over $50 million in grants and awards. Discover the exciting new avenues in dementia research being explored by Alzheimer Society Research Program (ASRP) recipients >