RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced this morning in Stockholm. The Nobel assembly at the Karolinska Institute announced a Japanese scientist as the sole winner this year. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to talk about the award-winning research. Good morning.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Who is the winner?
STEIN: His name is Yoshinori Ohsumi. He's 71 years old, and he's now at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
MONTAGNE: And he won for his work in two basic cell biology, I gather. But what exactly did he do?
STEIN: The Nobel Assembly says he discovered and explained a process that most people probably have never heard of, but is really important. It's called a autophagy. The term comes from the Greek words for self-eating. That's because it's a basic process that our cells use to break down and reuse parts of themselves to function. It's crucial for allowing cells to work properly.
MONTAGNE: So can - cells consuming themselves. How did he do this exactly?
STEIN: So scientists knew about this process since the 1960s, but it was very difficult to study. What Ohsumi did was what the Assembly is calling a brilliant series of experiments in the 1990s. He used baker's yeast to identify key genes, genes that are essential for autophagy. The Nobel Assembly says this was a major breakthrough. It enabled him to decipher the complex series of chemical signals and events involved in this process. He then went on to show that similar sophisticated machinery is used in our own cells.
The Assembly says this work led to a new understanding for how cells recycle their contents.
MONTAGNE: All of which sounds quite important.
STEIN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this is a fundamental process that cells need to survive, so it's involved in all sorts of things our bodies need to function properly. This is the process our cells use to generate, you know, fuel for energy and building blocks to keep themselves working right. So, for example, this is the process that cells use when the body is starving or subjected to other kinds of stress.
MONTAGNE: And also does it have to do with diseases?
STEIN: Oh, absolutely. Cells use this process to fight off infections with bacteria and viruses. It also contributes to embryonic development, and it's considered a crucial part of the aging process. And when this process gets, you know, kind of messed up somehow, scientists believe it can lead to a long list of diseases - you know, Parkinson's disease, type 2 diabetes, maybe Alzheimer's. And when the genes involved in autophagy get mutated somehow, that can cause genetic disorders, and disturbances in the underlying machinery of autophagy is believed to play a role in cancer.
MONTAGNE: So could this research also then lead to new treatments?
STEIN: Well, the Nobel Assembly says, yes, there's a lot of really intense research going on right now to try to develop drugs that can target different aspects of this process in all the diseases that I mentioned.
MONTAGNE: Now, did he do all of this - well, he did all of this by himself. How unusual is that?
STEIN: Well, you know, it's not all that unusual for a single scientist to win the Nobel Prize. I mean, it does happen. About a third of the Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine have gone to a single scientist, about a third are split between two scientists and a third are split by three. The good news for Ohsumi is that he doesn't have to share the prize with anyone. It's worth about $930,000.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, not bad. Well, OK, this is the first Nobel Prize being awarded this week. What comes next?
STEIN: Well, tomorrow is the prize for chemistry. Physics is Wednesday. The Peace Prize comes Friday. Economics and literature are next week.
MONTAGNE: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks very much.
STEIN: Oh, sure. Nice to be here.
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