Yoshinori Ohsumi of Japan won the Nobel Medicine Prize Monday for his pioneering work on autophagy -- a process whereby cells "eat themselves" -- which when disrupted can cause Parkinson's and diabetes.
A fundamental process in cell physiology, autophagy is essential for the orderly recycling of damaged cell parts and understanding it better has major implications for health and disease, including cancer.
Ohsumi's discoveries "have led to a new paradigm in the understanding of how the cell recycles its contents," the jury said.
"Mutations in autophagy genes can cause disease, and the autophagic process is involved in several conditions including cancer and neurological disease," the jury added.
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Researchers first observed during the 1960s that the cell could destroy its own contents by wrapping them up in membranes and transporting them to a recycling compartment called the lysosome -- a discovery that earned Belgian scientist Christian de Duve a Nobel Medicine Prize in 1974.
It was de Duve who coined the term "autophagy," which comes from the Greek meaning self-eating.
In what the jury described as a "series of brilliant experiments in the early 1990s," Ohsumi used baker's yeast to identify genes essential for autophagy.
He then went on to explain the underlying mechanisms for autophagy in yeast and showed that similar sophisticated machinery is used in human cells.
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