Upon meeting a Nobel Prize winner, particularly in the field of physiology or medicine, there is a degree of expectation. Surely, a lifetime of dedication and hard work will have been inspired by the pursuit of a material outcome, a mission with a clear end goal.
The tale of Professor Yoshinori Ohsumi, who won the prestigious prize in 2016, is a little different.
Ohsumi, now a professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology's Institute of Innovative Research, never actively sought to cure cancer, develop a groundbreaking medication, or solve an existential crisis facing humanity. His driving force – his purpose – has simply been to understand.
This innate curiosity led to over thirty years of research, largely on single-celled yeast organisms. His goal was to reveal how recycling occurs at a cellular level to help maintain life’s delicate equilibrium.
The research revealed highly regulated mechanisms that allow cells to recycle their contents during periods of stress and discard malfunctioning components, a process called autophagy.
At the outset of Ohsumi’s career, many of his peers were unconvinced of the field’s value. “When I started researching autophagy, it was not a hot area of research within cell biology,” he says. “People thought this was a passive and unimportant process.”
Now, decades after his initial work in the field, this understanding of how cells recycle and regulate their contents is seen as a way to understand certain disease processes. “Now autophagy is a hot topic because it might play a role in cancer or neurodegenerative disease, but I never had such a prediction or hope when I started my work,” Ohsumi says.
This humble desire to simply comprehend, without an overarching mission or conclusion, is not, however, an approach free of complications or drawbacks.
With governments increasingly unwilling to meet the costs of research into the basic sciences, and pharmaceutical and bio-engineering companies seeking the promise of profitable returns on investments, there is an increasing demand for researchers to show their work will have useful, “bench-to-bedside” applications.
"When I started researching autophagy, it was not a hot area of research within cell biology."
Ohsumi says that such disdain for basic science is shortsighted. “I took thirty years to understand this process, so it takes a long time and we cannot predict what we will find,” he says. “I had very good support from the government, but these days financial backers want to know that there is a clear end result – there is more support for application-oriented science.”
Whilst it appears that his work may yet lead to such applications, Ohsumi wants to encourage more researchers to focus on basic science, in order to shape the building blocks of future scientific innovation. He recently set up the Ohsumi Frontier Science Foundation, an organisation that supports researchers in their quest to understand the fundamentals of basic science, free from the constraints of having to deliver results with immediately obvious applications. “I want society to think that basic science is very important for humanity,” he explains, “and that utility is not the most important metric for evaluating scientific work.”
Beyond the comprehension of basic science, and the potential for medical breakthroughs as a result, Ohsumi is convinced that cellular biology can yield more abstract lessons for humanity.
An increasing focus on the impact of climate change, and recognition of the need for better marshalling of humanity’s resources, has reinforced his belief that society can learn lessons from how our bodies manage their resources. “Our body is a really efficient recycling system – most of the protein that exists in our body comes from proteins that previously existed in our body,” he says. “Our bodies adjust synthesis and degradation depending on the situation. I think, and I hope, that society can learn from the way our bodies regulate the breakdown and creation of materials.”
The St Gallen Symposium is an event where many of the attendees are clearly driven by a focus on noble pursuits with tangible outcomes; environmental salvation, gender equality and socially conscious investment and entrepreneurship have been dominant themes this year.
Ohsumi’s quest to understand the basic principles of biological science is not as immediately attention-grabbing. The concepts at play are harder to grasp. His recognition as a Nobel Laureate suggests, however, that such work, with no loftier ambition than to clarify the nebulous, should be prized by society. In our quest to find purpose, both individually and as a society, perhaps we can learn lessons from Ohsumi’s patient desire to simply understand the world around us.
Basic science may not promise immediate results, but the understanding it provides is crucial to eventually developing cures and other practical outcomes.