Finding a cure for cancer is one of our most important medical goals, and one Japanese scientist is helping us get closer to that. Yoshinoro Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine last week for his research on autophagy, a process in which cells eat themselves to survive.
Autophagy is an important process in our bodies: Cells eat part of themselves to keep healthy. They use autophagy to breakdown components to reuse for energy, destroy invading viruses and bacteria, and to get rid of damaged structures. Think of it as similar to recycling. Disruptions in the process have been linked to immunological diseases and neurodegenerative disorders, such as type 2 diabetes and dementia.
However, not much was known about the details of the process, that is, until Ohsumi began studying it in baker’s yeast and discovered it may also play a role in cancer and neurodegenerative disease. What he found was that the autophagy genes and the metabolic pathways he discovered in yeast are also used by higher organisms, including humans, and mutations in these genes can cause these diseases.
Scientists have always known about autophagy, but for the first time, they are now able to dig deeper into the details of the process to see how it fits into the formation of diseases.
Currently, it’s still unclear whether a dysfunctional autophagy process leads to disease, or whether disease itself is what causes a malfunctioning autophagy process (a chicken-or-egg scenario), but thanks to Ohsumi, we can now take a closer look at the process in cancer cells.
Photo by 140264jd