Nobel Prize in Medicine for Autophagy Research

In the news today it was announced that the Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the basis of autophagy.

Medicine Nobel for research on how cells ‘eat themselves’

Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi recognized for work on autophagy.

Molecular biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in the field of autophagy: the processes by which the cell digests and recycles its own components.

The 71-year-old Ohsumi, who is currently a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Yokohama, was recognized for his experiments in the 1990s, when he used baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) to identify genes that control how cells destroy their own contents. The same kinds of mechanism operate in human cells — and are sometimes involved in genetic disease.

“You can answer the most basic and important questions about the nature of life through yeasts.”

“He’s a very humble yeast geneticist who basically transformed the field,” says Sharon Tooze, a cell biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “He was interested in this weird pathway that turns out to be a vitally important pathway in medicine.”

The word ‘autophagy’ — from the Greek for ‘self-eating’ — was coined in 1963 by the Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve, who saw how cells broke down their parts inside a waste-processing sac that he called a lysosome. Biologists now understand that this process is fundamentally important to living cells.

Autophagy is the regulated process in which cells break down their own constituents, such as proteins and organelles like mitochondria, into their more basic parts such as amino acids, and recycle them for later use, either burning them for fuel or using them to make new structures. The cell replaces the old parts that it’s destroyed and replaces them with brand new ones.

In this way, autophagy provides for renewal.

Autophagy is critically important in aging and disease. One of the most characteristic aspects of aging is a decline in the levels of autophagy. Since aging by definition is an increase in the susceptibility to disease, it can be seen how important autophagy is to all diseases.

Autophagy relates to virtually all chronic diseases in one way or another, and even some non-chronic diseases, like infection. It’s important in cancer, cardiovascular disease, and brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Autophagy declines in aging. A salient characteristic of youthful organisms is a robust response to stimuli of autophagy, most notably the absence of food, or fasting.

When old, the level of autophagy is only 20% or less in some mammals than that seen in youthful members of the same species. Increasing it to youthful levels is perhaps the most important thing within our control to slow the aging process. (I wrote about this at length in my book, Stop the Clock.)

While fasting and calorie restriction are the best-known ways to increase autophagy, scientists are very interested in developing drugs that will do this as treatment for a number of diseases. This is a hot topic now, with many scientists researching this, and presumably drug companies as well.

To place this Nobel Prize in perspective, it should be noted that Dr. Ohsumi won it for elucidating the molecular mechanisms of autophagy, not for its health implications.

Also worthy of note is that he did his research using the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same yeast used in wine, beer, and bread making. This is important because the same mechanisms have been found at work in mammalian cells, showing that the mechanisms have been conserved by evolution, i.e. as single-celled organisms evolved into multicellular organisms, they retained the molecular machinery of autophagy. (An important piece of research on iron and aging also used yeast.)

The Nobel Prize in Medicine went to a worthy recipient, whose research greatly furthered our understanding of the vitally important process of autophagy. Undoubtedly, important discoveries on how it affects health and didsease are yet to come.

PS: Autophagy and how to increase it to youthful levels is central to my book, Stop the Clock.

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6 comments
Nobel Prize in Medicine for Autophagy Research | Technology and Longevity Feed says October 3, 2016

[…] Original Article: Nobel Prize in Medicine for Autophagy Research […]

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charles grashow says October 3, 2016

Interesting video

President’s Lecture: “Your Cells Clean House to Keep You Healthy”

Beth Levine, M.D., Professor of Internal Medicine and Microbiology, and her team explore how fasting activates a cellular process called autophagy, in which cells devour their own damaged or unneeded components. Her laboratory identified the first known gene in mammals that is responsible for autophagy and has since shown that defects in the expression or function of the gene, called beclin 1, may contribute to cancer, aging, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and infectious diseases. Dr. Levine discusses her work during the President’s Lecture on April 28, 2011

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Nick says October 4, 2016

Thanks for the interesting post on this.

I only heard snippets on the news about the Nobel Prize the other day and thought, hey, that sounds like autophagy. And so it is. And the yeast is actually brewer’s yeast, though I see it’s reported in the news as “baker’s yeast”. (Though I dunno, maybe bakers also use brewing yeast?)

Anyway, in my very limited attempts at intermittent fasting so far, one thing has come up. If I don’t eat anything after 20:00, but do drink beer til 22:00, this means my fasting starts at 22:00, right? IOW, beer & wine count, don’t they?

So far, I’ve not been doing much IF because I’ve been working out every other day, and I’ve only recently experimented with working out nearly fasted. I’m just nervous about going in and doing intense lifting with no protein in me. But I think I’ve been overtraining recently, and am going to try cutting back to two big days a week, in which case I should be able to do IF properly on the second days off.

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    P. D. Mangan says October 4, 2016

    Hi Nick – yes, baker’s, brewer’s yeast, the same species – though different uses may call for different stains (subspecies). Some of the variation between tyupes of beer, wine, and bread can be due to the strain of yeast used. In any case, beer and wine do count as food, so you’re not fasting if drinking.

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greg says October 4, 2016

This is interesting. I wonder if there is a way to quantify the benefits through lab work using intermittent fasting combined with a trial of Dasatinib/Quercetin? Anyone on here try that and care to share some anecdotes?

The experiences using the Dasatinib/Quercetin combination over at Longecity seem to be somewhat mixed.

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Uncle Maffoo says October 4, 2016

Is it already time again for Nobel Prize announcements? Yikes how time flies.

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