3 sci­en­tists share No­bel medicine prize for new tools to kill par­a­sites


Three sci­en­tists from the U. S., Ja­pan and main­land China won the No­bel Prize in medicine on Mon­day for dis­cov­er­ing drugs to fight malaria and other trop­i­cal dis­eases that af­fect hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple ev­ery year.

The No­bel judges in Stock­holm awarded the pres­ti­gious prize to Wil­liam Camp­bell, who was born in Ire­land and be­came a U. S. citizen in 1962, Satoshi Omura of Ja­pan and Tu Youyou — the first- ever Chi­nese medicine lau­re­ate.

Camp­bell and Omura were cited for dis­cov­er­ing aver­mectin, de­riv­a­tives of which have helped lower the in­ci­dence of river blind­ness and lym­phatic fi­lar­i­a­sis, two dis­eases caused by par­a­sitic worms that af­fect mil­lions of peo­ple in Africa and Asia.

Tu dis­cov­ered artemisinin, a drug that has helped sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the mor­tal­ity rates of malaria pa­tients.

“The two dis­cov­er­ies have pro­vided hu­mankind with pow­er­ful new means to com­bat these de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­eases that af­fect hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple an­nu­ally,” the com­mit­tee said. “The con­se­quences in terms of im­proved hu­man health and re­duced suf­fer­ing are im­men­su­rable.”

River blind­ness is an eye and skin dis­ease that ul­ti­mately leads to blind­ness. About 90 per­cent of the dis­ease oc­curs in Africa, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Lym­phatic fi­lar­i­a­sis can lead to swelling of the limbs and gen­i­tals, called ele­phan­ti­a­sis, and it’s pri­mar­ily a threat in Africa and Asia. The WHO says 120 mil­lion peo­ple are in­fected with the dis­ease, with­out about 40 mil­lion dis­fig­ured and in­ca­pac­i­tated.

Camp­bell, 85, is a re­search fel­low emer­i­tus at Drew Univer­sity in Madi­son, New Jersey. Omura, 80, is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Ki­tasato Univer­sity in Ja­pan and is from the cen­tral pre­fec­ture of Ya­manashi. Tu, 84, is chief pro­fes­sor at the China Academy of Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine.

Camp­bell, a re­tired sci­en­tist who spent 33 years at phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany Merck and now lives in North An­dover, Mas­sachusetts, said the award came as a huge sur­prise.

“It was a great team ef­fort by the peo­ple at Merck and Com­pany,” Camp­bell said.

Omura won­dered whether he de­served the prize.

“I have learned so much from micro­organ­isms and I have de­pended on them, so I would much rather give the prize to micro­organ­isms,” Omura told Ja­panese broad­caster NHK.

Omura iso­lated new strains of Strep­to­myces bac­te­ria and cul­tured them so that they could be an­a­lyzed for their im­pact against harm­ful micro­organ­isms, the No­bel com­mit­tee said.

Camp­bell showed that one of those cul­tures was “re­mark­ably ef­fi­cient” against par­a­sites in an­i­mals. The bioac­tive agent was pu­ri­fied and mod­i­fied to a com­pound that ef­fec­tively killed par­a­sitic lar­vae, lead­ing to the dis­cov­ery of new class of drugs.

Tu turned to herbal medicine to dis­cover a new anti- malar­ial agent, artemisinin ( pro­nounced ar- tuh- MIHS’- ihn- ihn), that was highly ef­fec­tive against malaria, a dis­ease that was on the rise in the 1960s, the com­mit­tee said.

Malaria is a mos­quito-borne dis­ease that still kills around 500,000 peo­ple a year, mostly in Africa, de­spite ef­forts to con­trol it.

Colin Suther­land, reader in par­a­sitol­ogy at Lon­don School of Hy­giene and Trop­i­cal Medicine, said that the im­pact of arteme- sinin had been pro­found. It’s so widely used across the world that there’s a risk of re­sis­tance prob­lems.

“The writ­ing is on the wall al­ready. We prob­a­bly have about five to 10 years of ef­fec­tive use of artemesinins be­fore re­sis­tance be­comes a prob­lem,” he said.

The WHO says artemisinin re­sis­tance has al­ready been con­firmed in Cam­bo­dia, Laos, Myan­mar, Thai­land and Viet­nam.

The last time a Chi­nese citizen won a No­bel was in 2012, when Mo Yan got the literature award. But China has been yearn­ing for a No­bel Prize in science. This was the first No­bel Prize given to a Chi­nese sci­en­tist for work car­ried out within China.

“This is in­deed a glo­ri­ous mo­ment,” said Li Chen­jian, a vice provost at pres­ti­gious Pek­ing Univer­sity. “This also is an ac­knowl­edge­ment to the tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine, for the work be­gan with herbal medicine.”

The medicine award was the first No­bel Prize to be an­nounced. The win­ners of the physics, chem­istry and peace prizes are set to be an­nounced later this week. The eco­nom­ics prize will be an­nounced next Mon­day. No date has been set yet for the literature prize, but it is ex­pected to be an­nounced on Thurs­day.

The win­ners will share the 8 mil­lion Swedish kro­nor ( about US$ 960,000) prize money with one half go­ing to Camp­bell and Omura, and the other to Tu. Each win­ner will also get a diploma and a gold medal at the an­nual award cer­e­mony on Dec. 10, the an­niver­sary of the death of prize founder Al­fred No­bel.

Last year's medicine award went to three sci­en­tists who dis­cov­ered the brain’s in­ner nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem.

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