The Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded today to three scientists from the U.S., Japan, and China, for discovering drugs to fight malaria and other tropical diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually.
The prize was awarded by the Nobel judges in Stockholm to William Campbell, Ph.D., who was born in Ireland and became a U.S. citizen in 1962, Satoshi Omura, Ph.D., of Japan, and Youyou Tu, the first-ever Chinese medicine laureate.
Dr. Campbell was associated with the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research from 1957 to 1990, and from 1984 to 1990 he was senior scientist and director for assay research and development.
Dr. Campbell, 85, is currently a research fellow emeritus at Drew University in Madison, NJ. Dr. Omura, 80, is a professor emeritus at Kitasato University in Japan and is from the central prefecture of Yamanashi. Ms. Tu, 84, is chief professor at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Nobel prize recipients Dr. Campbell and Dr. Omura were cited for discovering avermectin, derivatives of which have helped lower the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis. These two diseases are caused by parasitic worms that affect millions of people in Africa and Asia.
Ms. Tu, who won the Lasker Award in 2011, was inspired by traditional Chinese remedies to find an alternative treatment for the ailing first line therapies for malaria, quinine and chloroquine. Ms. Tu poured through ancient texts searching for herbal malaria tinctures and came upon an example that utilized the Chinese sweet wormwood plant, Artemisia annua. From this plant she was able to extract the active compound for the antimalarial drug called artemisinin—currently the first line of defense given in malarial endemic regions that have seen resistance to other commonly used drugs, such as chloroquine. Artemisinin has greatly aided in reducing the mortality rates of malaria, a parasitic disease spread by mosquitos that affects close to 50% of the world’s population.
Efforts to eradicate the black fly date back decades. Merck developed Mectizan (ivermectin), a drug to treat river blindness, which kills the worm's larvae and prevents the adult worms from reproducing. In 1987, Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, the chairman of Merck reportedly decided to make Mectizan available without charge because those who need it the most could not afford to pay for it.
The oral medication ivermectin paralyzes and sterilizes the parasitic worm that causes the illness.
The disease is spread by bites of the black fly, which breeds in fast-flowing rivers. The worm can live in the human body for many years and it can grow to two feet in length, producing millions of larvae. Infected people suffer severe itching, skin nodules, and a variety of eye lesions, and in extreme cases blindness.
“The two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually,” said the Nobel Committee in a statement. “The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immensurable.”