The scientists awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine for discoveries in fighting parasitic diseases say teamwork and Chinese medicine are key components behind their successes.
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN (DECEMBER 6, 2015) (REUTERS) – The three scientists who will receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine say teamwork and ancient medicine are the main reasons behind their success.
Three scientists from Japan, China and Ireland whose discoveries led to the development of potent new drugs against parasitic diseases including malaria and elephantiasis won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in October. They will be presented the award on Thursday (December 10).
Irish-born William Campbell and Japan’s Satoshi Omura won half of the prize for discovering avermectin, a derivative of which has been used to treat hundreds of millions of people with river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, or elephantiasis.
China’s Tu Youyou was awarded the other half of the prize for discovering artemisinin, a drug that has slashed malaria deaths and has become the mainstay of fighting the mosquito-borne disease. She is China’s first Nobel laureate in medicine.
Some 3.4 billion people, most of them living in poor countries, are at risk of contracting the three parasitic diseases.
Today, the medicine ivermectin, a derivative of avermectin made by Merck & Co, is used worldwide to fight roundworm parasites, while artemisinin-based drugs from firms including Novartis and Sanofi are the main weapons against malaria.
Omura and Campbell made their breakthrough in fighting parasitic worms, or helminths, after studying compounds from soil bacteria. That led to the discovery of avermectin, which was then further modified into ivermectin.
The treatment is so successful that river blindness and lymphatic filariasis are now on the verge of being eradicated.
Campbell said on Sunday (December 6) that the team had to control their excitment when they first discovered the possibility of a breakthrough.
“People like myself who have spent many years in the area of new drug discovery and the search for new drugs have learned not to get too excited at the first step, because the first step is likely to remain only a first step. And so there are many people involved as I mentioned, and that’s very important, and I think most of us who had experience did not have a ‘Eureka!’ moment, those who are new to the game might have been excited, but otherwise we did not know we had made a major discovery,” Campbell.
Campbell is research fellow emeritus at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.
His colleague Omura praised the collaboration behind the success.
“This work is not individual work, it is collaboration. The discovery was made by the group. I am just representing them. The key to success is collaboration, between Doctor Campbell and our institutions, with departmental discipline,” said the professor emeritus at Kitasato University in Japan.
Tu, meanwhile, turned to a traditional Chinese herbal medicine in her hunt for a better malaria treatment, following the declining success of the older drugs chloroquine and quinine.
She found that an extract from the plant Artemisia annua was sometimes effective but the results were inconsistent, so she went back to ancient literature, including a recipe from AD 350, in the search for clues.
This eventually led to the isolation of artemisinin, a new class of anti-malaria drug, which was available in China before it reached the West. Tu, 84, has worked at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine since 1965.
Tu said that Chinese medicine was a treasure.
“Traditional Chinese medicine is a great treasure, so we really have to work hard to improve it. I have been using it to alleviate the symptoms of malaria for many years,” said Tu.
Death rates from malaria have plunged 60 percent in the past 15 years, although the disease still kills around half a million people a year, the vast majority of them babies and young children in the poorest parts of Africa.
The 8 million Swedish crowns ($960,000) medicine prize is the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year. Prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.