I’m not going to lie: I was getting properly excited. This is because when I first saw the name, I saw a Mr Ohsumi. In Yoruba, this translates to “I don tire” and it tickled me no end. I opened the article and found an elderly Japanese man. I didn’t know we had Japanese people near Ibadan??!
But then, the BBC set me straight. The man’s full name is Yoshinori Ohsumi, and he has just been awarded the prestigious and coveted Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
He located genes that regulate the cellular “self eating” process known as autophagy.
Dr Ohsumi’s work is important because it helps explain what goes wrong in a range of illnesses, from cancer to Parkinson’s.
Errors in these genes cause disease.
Last year’s prize was shared by three scientists who developed treatments for malaria and other tropical diseases.
The body destroying its own cells may not sound like a good thing. But autophagy is a natural defence that our bodies use to survive.
It allows the body to cope with starvation and fight off invading bacteria and viruses, for example.
And it clears away old junk to make way for new cells.
Failure of autophagy is linked with many diseases of old age, including dementia.
Research is now ongoing to develop drugs that can target autophagy in various diseases, including cancer.
The concept of autophagy has been known for over 50 years, but it wasn’t until Dr Ohsumi began studying and experimenting with baker’s yeast in the 80s and 90s that the breakthrough in understanding was made.
Dr Yoshinori Ohsumi is reported to be surprised about receiving his Nobel Prize, but “extremely honoured”.
Speaking with the Japanese broadcaster NHK he said that the human body “is always repeating the auto-decomposition process, or cannibalism, and there is a fine balance between formation and decomposition. That’s what life is about.”
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