Yoshinori OhsumiOctober 4, 2016

By Lawrence Goodman | BrandeisNOW

Yoshinori Ohsumi, whose work on how cells jettison and recycle parts of themselves has deepened our understanding of human disease, has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Ohsumi was named the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research last December.

There is a long history of winners of the Rosenstiel going on to win the Nobel. In 2009, French biologist Jules Hoffman won the Rosenstiel then garnered the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine two years later. 

Ohsumi is an expert on a process known as autophagy, meaning "self-eating" in Greek. It's an adaptive mechanism of cells where they rid themselves of certain parts.

The parts can then be reused for energy when facing starvation. Autophagy also fights infection — the cells destroy the internal components that carry the infectious agents. 

"It was a great pleasure to awaken to the news that Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel Prize for his pioneering investigations of autophagy," James E. Haber, director of the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center, said. "We were proud to have recognized Dr. Ohsumi's contributions last year when he received the 45th Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research. This is the 6th time since 2000 that a Rosenstiel Award has been followed by the Nobel Prize."

Ohsumi did his pioneering work in the 1990s on yeast cells, but the genes and the metabolic pathways behind autophagy are also found in humans. When the process of autophagy fails, it can lead to dementia, certain types of cancer and Parkinson's.

"All I can say is, it's such an honor" to win the Nobel, Ohsumi told reporters, according to the Japanese broadcaster NHK. "I'd like to tell young people that not all can be successful in science, but it's important to rise to the challenge."