Beating parasites wins three scientists Nobel prize for medicine

Mon Oct 5, 2015 12:21pm EDT
 
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By Simon Johnson and Ben Hirschler

STOCKHOLM/LONDON (Reuters) - 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 on Monday.

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.

"These two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually," the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said.

"The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable."

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.   Continued...

 
William C. Campbell, a parasitologist and RISE Associate with Drew University, poses near paintings he made of parasites shortly after learning that he was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine, at his home in North Andover, Massachusetts October 5, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder