The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine awarded to Japanese microbiologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, while reminding us of the importance of basic research, should serve as a warning against the government’s current policy on scientific research and the research environment in this country. The scholar himself has expressed “a sense of crisis” over the situation surrounding younger researchers increasingly under pressure to produce quick results useful for practical purposes — an environment that may not be conducive to “paradigm shifting” research like Ohsumi’s in the future.

The 71-year-old honorary professor of the Tokyo Institute of Technology was given the award for his work in unlocking the key mysteries of autophagy, a process that helps the body remove unwanted proteins. He is credited with finding out the mechanisms that allow cells to break down and recycle unwanted components, and his discovery is hoped to aid in the fight against diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. “Autophagy has been known for over 50 years, but its fundamental importance in physiology and medicine was only recognized” after Ohsumi’s research, the Nobel committee said in its citation.

In a series of experiment in the early 1990s, Ohsumi used baker’s yeast to identify genes essential for autophagy and went on to elucidate the underlying mechanisms for the process in yeast and showed that similar sophisticated machinery is used in our cells, the Nobel committee said. His discoveries “led to a new paradigm in our understanding of how the cell recycles its content” and “opened the path to understanding the fundamental importance of autophagy in many physiological processes,” it said.

“Thanks to Ohsumi and others following in his footsteps, we now know that autophagy controls important physiological functions where cellular components need to be degraded and recycled. Autophagy can rapidly provide fuel for energy and building blocks for renewal of cellular components, and is therefore essential for the cellular response to starvation and other types of stress. After infection, autophagy can eliminate invading intracellular bacteria and viruses. Autophagy contributes to embryo development and cell differentiation. Cells also use autophagy to eliminate damaged proteins and organelles, a quality control mechanism that is critical for counteracting the negative consequences of aging,” the committee said. “Disrupted autophagy has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and other disorders that appear in the elderly. Mutations in autophagy genes can cause genetic disease. Disturbances in the autophagic machinery have also been linked to cancer. Intense research is now ongoing to develop drugs that can target autophagy in various diseases.”

What was behind the “groundbreaking” work is said to have been Ohsumi’s pure curiosity toward the mysteries of life. At the age of 43 he had his own small lab as an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo in 1988. He wanted the challenge of researching something unique that others were not working on. Ohsumi said after winning the award that he never dreamed that his research would someday “serve any practical purposes” when he started it nearly three decades ago. In those days, the research environment at state-run universities and institutions — and backed by government policy — supported that kind of basic research.

Today, government funding for scientific research is heavily distributed to projects that are expected to produce quick results and commercial benefits. Under the slogan of “selection and concentration,” the basis of operation of public universities and institutions and the foundation of the nation’s basic research are weakened. Ohsumi’s former colleague at a research lab said the kind of research that he pursued back then may not get enough funding today.

The number of Japanese Nobel laureates since the turn of the century has reached 16, including Ohsumi — the second most in the world after the United States’ 55. The award for Ohsumi, the fourth Japanese to win the prize for medicine, comes on the heels of the same prize that Satoshi Omura, a professor emeritus of Kitasato University, shared last year with American and Chinese researchers for his work on a therapy for debilitating diseases caused by parasitic worms. Like Ohsumi, many of the recent Japanese recipients have won the prizes in recognition of the work they accomplished during the days when there was sufficient support for basic research in Japan.

Ohsumi warns that science in Japan will “hollow out” unless support systems are established to help young scientists work on long-term research. He laments that scientists in Japan today face the pressure to achieve quick results “that are useful for something” such as those that can be applied to practical medical treatments within several years, but some achievements in fundamental scientific studies may not prove “useful” for another 10 or even 100 years. If scientists are under pressure to engage only in studies that can be used for some practical purpose, “genuine basic science will become extinct,” Ohsumi cautions.

We should not just celebrate another Nobel Prize for a Japanese but ponder what the award means for the nation’s policy on scientific research and its research environment.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Edward White