Medicine Nobel Prize for Parasite Drug Discoveries which saved Billions

Nobel prize medicine

The Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology has been jointly awarded to Youyou Tu (the first ever Chinese recipient of a Nobel Prize in this category) for discovering the malarial medicine Artemisinin, and to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura, for their pioneering work in developing a major parasitic round worm disease drug, Ivermectin.

These affordable (and in one case freely-available) medicines have treated around 3.4 billion people worldwide combined. Contraction of infectious diseases such as Malaria, Lymphatic filariasis (Elephantiasis) and River Blindness is often lethal due to the expense of healthcare in less well-developed regions where the parasite vectors (mosquitoes, black flies etc.) which transmit them are most prevalent. These 3 researchers have therefore been jointly-awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in recognition for their huge contribution to the battle against parasitic disease.

Death by Malaria alone (Source: Feachem, R. G. A. et al. The Lancet 6736 (10)

Satoshi Ōmura
Satoshi Ōmura

Satoshi Ōmura is a Japanese microbiologist who is jointly responsible for the discovery of the parasite drug Ivermectin. This is a highly potent drug against roundworm diseases such as River Blindness (caused by the parasite Ochocerca volvulus which is transmitted to the host by the bite of black flies from the Simulidae family) and Lymphatic Filariasis (extreme odema in peripheral tissues caused by the parasite Wucheria bancrofti).

William C Campbell
William C. Campbell

His work searching for bioactive compounds in soil bourne Streptomyces cultures led to the discovery of Avermectin, which was extracted and purified by Irish parasitologist William C. Campbell. Campbell had isolated Avermectin compound after observing certain Streptomyces cultures were very effective at killing off round-worm parasitic infections in livestock.

He then chemically modified the compound to give rise to Ivermectin – which was shown to be a potent killer of microfiliari (parasitic larvae) in humans as well. With a long-standing career with Merck & Co. (MSD in the EU) Institute for Therapeutic Research from 1957-90, Ivermectin was therefore developed by MSD.

Chemical modification of Avermectin into Ivermectin showed potent anti-filiarial action in animals and humans infected with River Blindness and Lymphatic Filiriasis (Credit:)
Chemical modification of Avermectin into Ivermectin showed potent anti-filarial action in animals and humans infected with River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis (Source: the Nobel Foundation)

River Blindness (Onchocerciasis) is endemic in over 30 African countries (WHO statistics in 2008) and whilst it does not kill the host, it is actually the lead cause of transmissable blindness after trachoma, with around 37 million infected.

“The burden of onchocerciasis: children leading blind adults in Africa” (CC: CopperKettle)

MSD’s Mectizan Donation Program has therefore worked in conjunction with NGO’s such as the WHO since 1988 to provide free Ivermectin to those infected, in order to stave off the onset of this permanent disability. Indeed, Invermectin has been key to the complete elimination of Onchocerciasis from both Ecuador and Colombia.

On a completely different note (with no connection to the others), the 2nd half of the Nobel prize was awarded to Youyou Tu, the first ever Chinese winner of a Nobel Prize for Medicine for her work on Malaria (also the first ever Chinese winner of half a Nobel prize…).

Youyou Tu
Youyou Tu (Source: )

Youyou Tu was born in China during the 1930’s and served as a professor at the Chinese School of Traditional Medicine, having studied in the Pharmacy department at the Beijing Medical University in 1955. She was recruited to be part of a secret research program under Mao Zedong’s dictatorship in 1967, known only as ‘Project 523‘, leaving her nursery-aged daughter behind to go and work in the Malaria-infested Hainan province.

After traditional treatments such as quinine failed during the Chinese malarial epidemic of the 60’s (check out this awesome timeline of Malarial history from the Wellcome Trust), Tu decided to investigate ancient books for herbal remedies, eventually leading to the extraction of Artemisininic acid from the the plant Artemisia annua.

Artemisia annua
(Source: Nobel Foundation)

Now Artemisininic acid based anti-malarial drugs are used globally to fight the parasite, with over 200 million infected per year by the various Falciparum strains. I feel it is also important to acknowledge that through her research and in servitude of her government, a great sacrifice was made by Tu so that on her return, her daughter no longer recognized her.

Through the hard work and dedication of Tu, Ōmura and Campbell to their research, the discoveries they have made in medicine has transformed our approach to treating infectious diseases.

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