Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday for discoveries related to autophagy, a cell-recycling system that could be used to help treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and cancer.

"Ohsumi's discoveries led to a new paradigm in our understanding of how the cell recycles its content," the Karolinska Institute's Nobel Assembly said in a statement.

"His discoveries opened the path to understanding the fundamental importance of autophagy in many physiological processes, such as in the adaptation to starvation or response to infection," the statement added.

Mutations in the process of autophagy - or "self-eating," a name which was coined by Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve in 1963 - can cause diseases including cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes.

Ohsumi's discoveries are "critically involved in ... our way of handling, counteracting [these] diseases," said Anna Wedell of the Karolinska Institute's Nobel Assembly.

Between 1901 and today, only 39 medicine prizes have been given to a single laureate, and Wedell referred to the committee's decision to name Ohsumi as the sole winner as "unusual."

"It's unusual that one person has dominated a field for so long and done so much of the original work," she said. "And when he did his first studies, very few people were interested in autophagy, so he worked almost alone for decades.

Ohsumi was born 1945 in Fukuoka, Japan. He received his doctorate from the University of Tokyo in 1974 before spending three years at Rockefeller University, New York, as a post-doctoral fellow.

He returned to the University of Tokyo, where he established his research group in 1988. Since 2009, he has been a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Thomas Perlmann, secretary general of the Karolinska Institute's Nobel Assembly, told reporters that Ohsumi was "not expecting" to win the award and that he is "very, very pleased."

Perlmann added that Ohsumi had asked him "if he was allowed to leave the building," and that he had responded that the laureate could expect a lot of phone calls and attention in the wake of the announcement.

"In line with my belief, I wanted to do some research other people didn't," Ohsumi told Japanese broadcaster NHK after the announcement. "The field did not receive much attention back then, but it has gotten a lot of attention recently."

The medicine prize was the first of the annual Nobel Prize awards to be announced. The Physics prize will be announced Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. Literature follows on October 13.

The awards were endowed by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite. It is worth 8 million kronor (930,000 dollars) this year.

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