Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his works that explored the machinery through which cells break down and recycle their unwanted components.
This process of cellular recycling called autophagy is a crucial biological process. It helps ward off infection and protect the body against a range of illnesses.
Disruption of autophagy has been associated with type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other health problems that emerge among the elderly. Disturbances in the machinery has been linked to cancer as well as genetic diseases.
By conducting studies on the inner workings of simple yeast cells, Ohsumi identified the genes that make autophagy possible. He also found out how cells determine which of its parts needs to be replaced and what happens when things go wrong.
Scientists have long known about this cellular process but Ohsumi's discoveries showed how important it is to physiological health and how it can potentially treat certain diseases.
"His discoveries opened the path to understanding the fundamental importance of autophagy in many physiological processes, such as in the adaptation to starvation or response to infection," reads the press release announcing Ohsumi's award. "Mutations in autophagy genes can cause disease, and the autophagic process is involved in several conditions including cancer and neurological disease."
David Rubinsztein, from the University of Cambridge said that the Nobel Prize winner's works offered deep insights into the biology behind infectious diseases, Huntington's, Parkinson's and cancers which afflict millions of people worldwide.
Giovanna Mallucci, also from the University of Cambridge, said that the discoveries made by Ohsumi were paving way for new approaches for treating diseases ranging from cancer to neurodegenerative illnesses.
"I think it's very important that this area of science been recognised," Mallucci said. "The important principle here is going for common mechanisms in disease. It opens up avenues to treating these disorders that are different from more conventional disease-specific approaches."
Researchers are now looking into how manipulating autophagy may help treat diseases. Early-stage clinical trials, for instance, now investigate if disrupting the process can make radiation or chemotherapy better at targeting and killing cancerous cells.
By stopping the cancerous cells' ability to regenerate themselves, it is possible that traditional cancer therapies have better chances at killing them.
Therapies that restart autophagy process, on the other hand, may help clear out the toxic proteins that inhibit cell function. In a small trial involving patients with Parkinson's disease and Lewy body dementia, use of a drug that promote autophagy was linked to improvements in cognition and motor skills of the participants.