Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi and Autophagy

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KYOTO, JAPAN — June 22, 2012 — The Inamori Foundation today announced that Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi,67, has been selected to receive the 28th annual Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences in the field of Life Sciences for his defining work in autophagy, a process by which living cells adapt to their environment. Dr. Ohsumi has made groundbreaking contributions toward elucidating the molecular mechanisms and physiological significance of autophagy, demonstrating how a cell degrades its own proteins in order to adapt to nutritional deficiency and other influences. Autophagy is now regarded as a vital cell-recycling system and may aid in future developments to treat neurodegenerative maladies such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and other age-related ailments. Dr. Ohsumi is currently a professor at the Frontier Research Center of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, where he and his team continue their world-leading work in autophagy.

Identifying Autophagy
Autophagy was first described in the early 1960s, having been inferred from the observation that cytosolic components such as mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum are found in single-layered membranes within the lysosome, which was known as the food vacuole or phagosome in animal cells. Derived from the Greek “auto” (self) and “phagy” (eating), autophagy is a cellular process involving the degradation and recycling of a cell’s own proteins and can be described as “self-cannibalization.” When a cell runs out of nutrients, a membrane structure appears inside the cell and encloses the mitochondria and other proteins. It wasn’t until Dr. Ohsumi’s ground-breaking work in the late 1990s that the significance of autophagy became known.

In 1988, Dr. Ohsumi set up his own research lab at the University of Tokyo to explore areas that few others ventured into, rather than following popular trends of the time – a true pioneer. He began to observe intracellular vacuoles of yeast, which were receiving little academic attention at the time. Several months later, he became the first scientist to observe through a microscope how yeast’s own mitochondria and other proteins were degraded in the vacuoles, thus demonstrating that autophagy could be induced in yeast. With this experience as a turning point, Dr. Ohsumi subsequently identified several genes essential for autophagy, and made one discovery after another about its functions on the molecular level. His research findings have since been applied to autophagy in animals as well, and many researchers are now working hard to further clarify the molecular mechanism and physiological significance of this process.

 The Significance of Dr. Ohsumi’s Work
Recent research has revealed that autophagy plays a number of roles, such as removing bacteria that have invaded cells, supplying amino acids and energy during development, and governing the cell’s response to nutrient deprivation. Non-functional proteins that have accumulated in nerve cells are believed to be the cause of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It is now accepted that autophagy is involved in the removal of such non-functional proteins and in preventing their accumulation inside of cells. It is thought that autophagy may be involved in aging and cancer as well. As such, elucidating its entire molecular mechanism is expected to shed light on fundamental processes of life, and thus make major contributions to the further advancement of the medical and life sciences.

Dr. Ohsumi joins Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Arts & Philosophy) and Dr. Ivan Sutherland (Advanced Technology) as this year’s honorees of the prestigious Kyoto Prize, Japan’s highest private award for global achievement. Each laureate will receive a diploma, a 20-karat gold Kyoto Prize medal and a cash gift of 50 million yen (approximately US$630,000) in recognition of lifelong contributions to society at a ceremony in Kyoto, Japan on November 10, 2012.