Published On: Tue, Oct 6th, 2015

3 scientists awarded with Nobel Prize for Medicine for their work on parasitic diseases

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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.

The treatment is so successful that river blindness and lymphatic filariasis are now on the verge of being eradicated.

Omura, 80, said the real credit for the achievement should go to the ingenuity of the Streptomyces bacteria, whose naturally occurring chemicals were so effective at killing off parasites.

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