Nobel Prize honours breakthrough research for malaria and roundworms treatment

© Bill Denison/Drew University
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine honoured research that led to ‘revolutionary treatments’ for devastasting diseases in the developing world.
One half of the prize was awarded jointly to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura for ‘their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites’ and the other half to Youyou Tu for ‘her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against malaria’.

Winners provided ‘powerful new means to combat debilitating diseases’

Campbell and Ōmura discovered a new drug, Avermectin, the derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, as well as showing efficacy against an expanding number of other parasitic diseases. Meanwhile Tu discovered Artemisinin, a drug that has significantly reduced the mortality rates for patients suffering from malaria.

According to the Nobel Prize organisers, these two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually. The organisers note, ‘The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable’.

Science magazine quotes David Molyneux, Head of the Neglected Tropical Diseases Programme at the School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool: ‘It is extremely rewarding to know that people from the development community have been recognised for work that really helps people.’ Molyneux estimates that Ivermectin, a derivative of Avermectin, has been given more than a billion times, preventing more than 500 000 cases of blindness.

The research behind the prize

More than 25 years ago, Ōmura identified some 50 cultures of Streptomyces that appeared to be strong candidates for antimicrobial drugs. Campbell then found that one was particularly effective at killing roundworms in farm animals and pets. The active component was purified and named Avermectin. According to Science, subsequent versions have been so effective at curing the parasitic diseases river blindness and lymphatic filariasis that they have been nearly eradicated.

Science quotes Ōmura who told the Japanese broadcasting company NHK, ‘There are many talented researchers in Japan. What I do is just tedious labour. I never really expected myself to be a Nobel laureate. I’ve always been proud that my work helped people, I tried to help people. But that is different from being a Nobel laureate.’

Back in the late 1960s, before Ōmura and Campbell had made their breakthroughs, Chinese researcher Youyou Tu was tackling the challenge of developing novel malaria therapies using traditional herbal medicine. When an extract from the plant Artemisia annua emerged as an interesting candidate, Tu revisited ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her to successfully extract the active component from the plant. Tu was the first to show that this component, later called Artemisinin, was highly effective against the malaria parasite, both in infected animals and in humans. According to the Nobel Prize organisers, Artemisinin represents a new class of antimalarial agents that rapidly kill the malaria parasites at an early stage of their development, which explains its unprecedented potency in the treatment of severe malaria.