My sharp-eyed brother thoughtfully sent me the news of this year’s medical Nobel Prize winner. Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi of Japan won the prize for his work identifying cells that regulate autophagy. Wow, there’s a 10–buck word that I had never heard of before. But it’s a very important word to people with Parkinson’s. Autophagy, literally “self-eating”, is the process of “taking out the trash” in healthy cells. If this process goes wrong, the cells get littered with clumps of old junk — Lewy bodies for us Parkies. Failure of autophagy is also connected with dementia and cancer.
The concept of autophagy has been known for over 50 years, but it wasn’t until Dr Ohsumi began studying and experimenting with baker’s yeast in the 80s and 90s that the breakthrough in understanding was made. Now, other scientists are working on autophagy manipulation as a potential therapy for infectious diseases, cancers, and various neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s disease and — Yippee! — Parkinson’s disease.
Dr. Ohsumi’s work in Japan points up that it takes a global village to fight Parkinson’s. I was encouraged that there were over 4500 participants from 67 countries (including Barbados!) at the World Parkinson Congress in Portland, Oregon. I had a goal of meeting someone from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and I succeeded in that goal: I met physicians from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Mumbai, India; and Mexico City, Mexico. I also saw the large delegation from Malaysia gleefully assembling for their group photo. About half of WPC attendees were medical professionals and/or researchers. I hope they got some new ideas at WPC and have all returned to their labs and clinics with their sleeves rolled up, working on a cure. I can’t award them a Nobel, but I can say a big “THANK YOU”.