Autophagy is a new word to most of us. What does it mean in the world of medical science? Why should we know more about it?
Autophagy means self-eating. Yes, something inside our body acts in that way. But this is actually good for us. This is because our body is eating away the bad stuff inside us. It is programmed to chew away worn-out or damaged body cells.  And our healthy body cells work better if they can dispose of and recycle its garbage. 

More importantly, autophagy removes proteins that clump together abnormally in brain cells, something which happens inHuntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases and in some forms of dementia. In simple language, that means it is like a vacuum cleaner in our home - it sucks away the bad things in terminal diseases with those fancy names.

Preliminary studies have shown that boostingautophagy can ease and delay such diseases, said David Rubinsztein, deputy director of the Institute for Medical Research at the University of Cambridge.

This new scientific knowledge is thanks to Yoshinori Ohsui, 71, a Japanese scientist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.  He has been awarded the 2016  Nobel Prize in medicine for showing how it all happens. This is because knowing how it works can show medical scientists how to treat cancers, Parkinson’s disease and Type 2 diabetes. Award of Nobel Prize for this discovery is confirmation that one more important step has been made towards the discovering cures for the most common killers in our midst.

Juleen Zierath, a member of the Nobel committee, said: “Every day we need to replace about 200 to 300g of protein in our bodies... We are eating proteins every day, about 70g, but that’s not enough to take care of the requirement to make new proteins. Because of this machinery, we’re able to rely on some of our own proteins, maybe the damaged proteins or the long-lived proteins, and they are recycled with this sophisticated machinery so that we can sustain and we survive.”

Last year, the prize was shared by three scientists for discoveries that helped doctors fight malaria and infections caused by roundworm parasites. The Chinese chemist, Tu Youyou, was recognised for her discovery of artemisinin, one of the most effective treatments for malaria. Two other researchers, Satoshi Ōmura, an expert in soil microbes at Kitasato University, and William Campbell, an Irish-born parasitologist at Drew University in New Jersey, shared the other half of the prize, for the discovery of avermectin, a treatment for roundworm parasites.

Thank you, Dr Ohsumi.