Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for elucidating how the body’s cells deal with and recycle waste, a discovery that has paved the way for research on treatment for neurological and other diseases.
Dr. Ohsumi received the prize for research that led to the understanding of autophagy and its role in many physiological processes, including a response to starvation and to infection.
His work on the machinery of autophagy—literally “self-eating”—explains how cellular components are being degraded and recycled, Nobel Committee member Juleen Zierath said. Thanks to autophagy, cells turn waste into fuel for energy and building blocks for renewal of cellular components.
“He showed cells were equipped with sophisticated recycling plants,” she said. “It’s a beautiful prize.”
The award, announced Monday by the Nobel committee in Stockholm, comes with a check for 8 million Swedish kronor ($933,000).
Autophagy is a process by which cells degrade some of their own contents and clear them away or recycle them. In his research, Dr. Ohsumi identified the first genes essential for autophagy in yeast and subsequently helped describe how the process works in humans and animals. The knowledge may be useful in developing treatments for such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer.
At a news conference at the Tokyo Institute of Technology after he received word of the prize, Dr. Ohsumi said he purposely chose the “garbage collection” of the body’s cells as the subject of his life’s work, hoping to avoid competition. He never imagined that such research could lead to a Nobel Prize.
“I don’t like competition very much, and I think the essence of science—what really makes it so much fun—is to do what others aren’t doing, rather than doing what everyone else in the pack is flocking to,” said the 71-year-old scientist.
He continued, “I started my research in what everyone thought was a place for garbage collection, and I began in an era when no one had much interest in the degradation of proteins.”
Dr. Ohsumi said his research area was important because cells couldn’t function without “quality control” and a way of getting rid of and recycling substances it didn’t need any more. “Life is possible only with this extremely important recycling system,” he said. “We create proteins and destroy them, and again create and destroy, and that’s what makes life exist.”
He alluded to the way people marooned at sea can survive for many weeks on water alone, saying this was thanks to the body’s ability to recycle proteins.
The biologist didn’t study autophagy on human cells but on thousands of strains of yeast. Frequently used as a proxy for human cells in labs, yeast cells still posed a challenge because of their small sizes, Prof. Zierath said.
Dr. Ohsumi successfully cultured mutated yeast, finding ways to trigger the autophagic process right when cells were under his microscope.
“He created a really ingenious way to study cells,” she said.
It is the second year in a row for a Japanese scientist to win the Nobel medicine prize and the third time since 2012. Japan has had a run of prizes since 2000 in the sciences.
Dr. Ohsumi, a graduate of Tokyo University who did his important initial studies in the genetics of autophagy as a Tokyo University professor, said that recent research has discovered possible connections between autophagy and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer, but he said he didn’t begin his studies with the intent of curing such diseases.
“I’d like to stress again the importance of basic research,” he said. “When I started researching, I never thought this was research that would lead to a Nobel Prize. To be honest, that was never something that was motivating me.”
He said he wanted to do research that was useful to the world, and called for the word “useful” to be interpreted broadly. “I think it’s a problem when the word ‘useful’ is treated as a synonym for something that can be commercialized in the next few years,” he said. “It may be 10 years, 20 years or even 100 years later.”
In recent years, the Nobel Prize for medicine has generally been awarded jointly to two or three scientists. “I’m surprised that I was the sole winner,” Dr. Ohsumi said. He said that shortly before he heard the news, he had been speculating in his own mind that if he were to win the Nobel Prize, he might share it with Noboru Mizushima, a Tokyo University professor, and Tamotsu Yoshimori, an Osaka University professor, both of whom have done significant work in autophagy.
“Japan has always had a big lead in this field,” Dr. Ohsumi said.