Space & Innovation

Japan's Ohsumi Wins Nobel Prize for Cell 'Recycling' Work

The work sheds light on how cells "eat themselves," which when disrupted can cause diabetes and Parkinson's.

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.

RELATED: 'Goat Man,' Personality of Rocks Win Ig Nobel Prizes

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.

WATCH VIDEO:Why Can't We Experiment On Embryonic Stem Cells?

Ohsumi's findings opened the path to understanding the importance of autophagy in many physiological processes, such as how the body adapts to starvation or responds to infection.

When autophagy breaks down, links have been established to Parkinson's disease, type 2 diabetes and other disorders that appear in the elderly.

Intense research is now underway to develop drugs that target autophagy in various diseases.

Ohsumi, 71, received a PhD from the University of Tokyo in 1974. He is currently a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

RELATED: Most Amazing Medical Breakthroughs

He is the 23rd Japanese national to win a Nobel prize, and the 6th Japanese medicine laureate. The prize comes with eight million Swedish kronor (around $936,000 or 834,000 euros).

"This is the highest honour for a researcher," Ohsumi told Japan's public broadcaster NHK. "My motto is to do what others don't want to do. I thought (cellular breakdown) was very interesting. This is where it all begins.

It didn't draw much attention in the past, but we're now in a time when there a bigger focus on it," added Ohsumi.

The 2016 Nobel season is to continue Tuesday with the physics prize announcement, followed by the chemistry prize on Wednesday.