You may have heard that the Nobel Prize in medicine this year went to microbiologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, whose groundbreaking work in discovering the genes behind autophagy has offered unprecedented illumination on how damaged proteins are handled by this nonstop housecleaning process. From a scientific standpoint, Ohsumi has dramatically increased our understanding of a basic and essential process of cells. From a more long-term, hopeful standpoint, the findings could suggest ways to enhance the disposal of dysfunctional proteins and lead to healthier living and longer lives.
In Brief: Autophagy
Autophagy is best summarized as a sort of composting system. Basically, waste products and various other bits the cell wants to get rid of are isolated in a membrane that joins up with a sac of digestive enzymes. They merge to create an isolated container called a vacuole, which breaks down the contents for energy and building blocks for other processes. Autophagy is involved in the renewal of cells, eliminating invading bacteria or viruses, and even embryonic development.
Autophagy declines in age, and one train of thought suggests that the accumulation of dysfunctional proteins is responsible for the aging process. Disruptions in autophagy have also been suggested to tie in with Parkinson’s disease or other age-related disorders. Certain disturbances in the autophagy process have also been implicated in some cancers.
In other words: autophagy is involved in a lot of different things, and thanks to Ohsumi, we now know some of the genes involved.
Implications for Healthier Aging
Understanding which genes are capable of governing the autophagy process means that research can begin (and has begun) on finding ways to poke and prod the genes to do what we want. Autophagy stimulators could, for instance, be used to keep cells healthier for longer periods and may help abate conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes. On the flip side, a drug capable of inhibiting autophagy has potential uses for cancer research in order to make tumors more vulnerable to chemotherapy drugs.
Reaching these sorts of developments will take significant time and testing, but a road has now been created. It is up to others to explore and see where it leads.
“The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2016,” Nobel Prize web site, October 3, 2016; https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2016/press.html?ctkey=autophagy, last accessed October 4, 2016.