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Autophagy: A hot topic of research in 2016

Submitted by on February 12, 2017 – 11:15 AM

nobel-neuroThe year 2016 almost comes to an end as I brainstorm this piece of writing. If we look back at the major science events related to the field of physiology or medicine, autophagy leftovers are to be the unforgettable ones. It remains special as the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute decided to award the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to a Japanese scientist, Yoshinori Oshumi, 71, for his ground-breaking research regarding the “mechanism for autophagy”. Although research related to the autophagy continued widely, the announcement of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for autophagy makes it to a headline of many news portals, journals and blogs.


Autophagy is an intracellular self-digestion mechanism, by which cellular components are sorted into double-membrane autophagosomes and delivered to lysosomes for degradation. Autophagy process is used by the cells to dispose off waste products and eliminate hazards, while recycling nutrients and tuning metabolism in the process. This autophagic process is regulated by sequential engagement of several autophagy related genes (ATGs) in a highly regulated manner.


In the early 1960s, researchers highlighted the fate of cell that could break down and recycle their own components. In the mean time, Belgian Biochemist Christian de Duve made discoveries of the cell organelles that is lysosome and peroxisome, for which he had shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in the year 1974. In addition, he first coined the term Autophagy (in Greek means “self-eating”) in the year 1963. However, the mystery continues regarding how the autophagy functions within the cell until Dr. Oshumi started his experiment on the baker’s yeast in the 1990s.


In the year 1993, Dr. Oshumi and the team succeeded to discover the genes involved in the autophagic process which was published in FEBS Letters. Further studies were conducted to reveal the biochemical mechanisms underlying within the process. In 1998, Dr. Oshumi and his team succeeded to breakthrough by publishing their work in Nature, in which they showed that the conjugation system of protein is essential for autophagic process. The paradigm-shifting researches in the 1990s open up the door in revolutionizing the concept of autophagy and hence impacting on the modern medicine.


A search for “autophagy” in the Pubmed database pops up to 27,173 articles (the number might have increased significantly by the time this piece of writing is being read). More than 30 ATGs have been identified so far genetically that are required for autophagy. These days autophagy was applied widely as a constitutive process in eukaryotic cells and was found to be involved in various cellular processes. Furthermore, it has been implicated widely in different types of human diseases which includes the better understanding of the diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and type 2 diabetes.


The development of pharmacological agents that could modulate autophagy in various human diseases is vital. Autophagy is subjected to play a dual role in different disease processes. That dual role played by autophagy; either a protective or destructive role in different disease, makes it an important modulator either as activator or inhibitor in various pharmacological processes. Till date many drugs that modulate autophagy were under clinical trials. With all these in mind, autophagy seems to be an interesting and very important area of research.


The discovery of autophagy comes a long way. However, there is still lot to be explored for successful implementation in the critical human diseases. And, this year Nobel Prize highlighted the topic once again plus encourages young researchers to get involved to present a better outcome.



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