Rosenstiel Award winner speaks on campus

Cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi honored for his work in cellular biology.

It’s not very often you hear this about a scientist visiting Brandeis — "He’s a rock star."

Anna Kazatskaya, a doctoral candidate in biology, was talking about Yoshinori Ohsumi, this year’s recipient of the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research.

Ohsumi, a cell biologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, pioneered research into autophagy, an adaptive mechanism of cells where they rid themselves of certain parts either to rebuild strength, fight infection, or, on the downside, trigger disease.

Ohsumi’s work focuses on yeast, though it’s also broadly applicable to humans as well. His talk was entitled, "Lessons from yeast: Cellular recycling system, autophagy."

In introducing Ohsumi, James E. Haber, the director of the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center, said there’d been roughly 23,000 scientific papers written about autophagy. "It’s possible to trace their lineage back to a single person and that person is Professor Ohsumi," Haber said.

He said Ohsumi’s research tapped into the "awesome power of yeast genetics” to identify the 18 different proteins that direct the degradation of protein aggregates as well as huge organelles such as damaged mitochondria.  Having worked out the biochemical roles of each of the core autophagy components and how they are assembled into complex “machines,”  Ohsumi and his students went on to show that this apparatus is completely conserved in mammals and even plants.  Defects in autophagy have recently been associated with many human diseases including cancer.  

Ohsumi said in his talk that when he began researching autophagy, "not very many people were interested." It was assumed the cell dumped internal components into a "garbage can" full of junk. He took an interest in autophagy, he said, "because I’m not a very competitive person so I wanted to work in a field where not a lot of people were working."

Since the Rosenstiel Award was created in 1971, 34 recipients have later won the Nobel Prize. "It’s a great honor to be here," Ohsumi said in his speech. Perhaps he will soon be saying the same in Sweden.


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