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Autophagy Is the New Black

Autophagy is having a moment. At least that’s the clickbait headline that would likely be jamming up your Twitter feed if science news was covered like celebrity news. But while it may not involve celebrity sightings or Kardashians, make no mistake: For the people who have been working for years on this groundbreaking subject, this was a big week. Of course, a Nobel Prize will have that effect.

Autophagy is the process by which cells break down and recycle their own materials. On Monday, Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for uncovering the mechanisms of autophagy. But truth be told, his most innovative work came more than a decade ago.

File photo of Yoshinori Ohsumi. (Courtesy: Asian Scientist Newsroom)

The first breakthrough in Dr. Ohsumi’s research came 10 to 15 years ago as he studied autophagy in yeast and was able to identify the main genes involved in the process. As his work progressed, he was able to show the cellular recycling process occurs in human cells as well, and that our cells would not survive without it.

Since then, the field has been steadily growing with more and more teams studying the implications and expanding on Dr. Ohsumi’s work. Researchers have linked dysfunctional autophagy to Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. But it may also have major implications for cancer treatment.

Cancer cells rely on autophagy to survive when they run out of nutrients. It keeps them alive after they’ve been damaged by chemotherapy and other treatments. The hope is that blocking the process will make existing cancer drugs and treatments more efficient.

Researchers in the Abramson Cancer Center, led by Hematology-Oncology associate professor Ravi Amaravadi, MD, have found existing drugs used to treat other diseases, like malaria, can actually inhibit autophagy. That discovery has led to new trials featuring malaria drugs repurposed to treat cancer. And those trials are showing promising results with melanoma, pancreatic and colon cancers, as well as several others.

Now this research is getting international attention. On Monday, TV crews from Japanese broadcaster NHK came to Penn to talk to Dr. Amaravadi about the work he and his team are spearheading and how it’s been influenced by Dr. Ohsumi. Suddenly, autophagy is worldwide news.

Despite the excitement, there are still some major hurdles to overcome, including finding a drug with the right potency and dealing with the toxic effects some of these medications can have on other parts of the body. But combination therapies that use both drugs and radiation are leading to encouraging developments, and Dr. Amaravadi said news of the Nobel Prize can only help the process by shining a light on the clinical applications autophagy research is helping to pioneer.

Amaravadi said the Nobel Prize could be a major factor in invigorating the field; encouraging funding agencies to pay attention and prioritize this research and getting pharmaceutical companies to accelerate development of new autophagy drugs.

“It’s like a shoe company. You know Adidas. You may not have thought about them for a while. Then you see a star athlete wearing an Adidas shoe, and all of the sudden it’s popular again.”

Sure, it may not dominate the conversation around your office like Game of Thrones or Stranger Things, but developments in autophagy are huge innovations and could have lifesaving implications.

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