2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Research in Anti-Parasitic Drugs

By Rebecca Kreston | October 5, 2015 9:36 pm

Three scientists that developed treatments for debilitating parasitic infections were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine today for their ground-breaking advancements in tropical medicine.

An Indonesian man with lymphatic filariasis or elephantiasis caused by the parasite Wuchereria bancrofti. Image: Tropenmuseum. Click for source.

An Indonesian man with elephantiasis caused by Wuchereria bancrofti. The worm resides in the lymphatic channels, usually in the lower extremities, where they interfere with the normal transport of lymphatic fluid and cause obstruction. Image: Tropenmuseum. Click for source.

One half of the prize was awarded to Youyou Tu, a pharmacologist at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing. Her work in identifying anti-malarial compounds in the late 1960s was inspired by traditional Chinese herbal remedies. She screened thousands of these treatments, trawling through ancient recipes, and ultimately found success in artemisinin from the wormwood plant Artemisia annua. The drug, which she describes as a “true gift from old Chinese medicine,” is currently a mainstay of the treatment regimen for this deadly protozoan parasite and is used by nearly 400 million people every year. Its use can reduce the mortality rate of malaria infection from 20 to 30%.

In 2011, Tu wrote an article for Nature about the discovery and development of the artemisinin extract,

During the Cultural Revolution, there were no practical ways to perform clinical trials of new drugs. So, in order to help patients with malaria, my colleagues and I bravely volunteered to be the first people to take the extract. After ascertaining that the extract was safe for human consumption, we went to the Hainan province to test its clinical efficacy, carrying out antimalarial trials with patients infected with both Plasmodium vivax and P. falciparum. These clinical trials produced encouraging results: patients treated with the extract experienced rapid disappearance of symptoms—namely fever and number of parasites in the blood—whereas patients receiving chloroquine did not.

The other half of the Nobel Prize was awarded to William C. Campbell, a microbiologist at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and Satoshi Ōmura, a microbiologist at Kitasato University in Japan. Both Ōmura and Campbell discovered avermectins, a class of compounds that can kill parasitic roundworms that cause crippling diseases, such as lymphatic filariasis, otherwise known as elephantiasis, and onchocerciasis or river blindness.

In the mid-1970s, Ōmura used the techniques of Selman Waksman to identify anti-parasitic compounds from soil bacteria known as Streptomyces and found success in a soil sample from a nearby golf course. (The same laborious technique was also used by two female scientists in New York to identify one of the world’s first antifungal drugs.) Campbell identified one such component of Ōmura’s cultures that had unique anti-parasitic activity and refined its derivative, ivermectin. Today, the drug has not only reduced the crippling morbidity of these two dreadful diseases but has also successfully interrupted their chains of transmission.

“These 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. “The discoveries of avermectin and artemisinin have revolutionized therapy for patients suffering from devastating parasitic diseases. Campbell, Ōmura and Tu have transformed the treatment of parasitic diseases. The global impact of their discoveries and the resulting benefit to mankind are immeasurable.”

Resources

Today’s announcement from the Nobel Committee on the 2015 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

“Two female scientists inspired by the humble discovery of penicillin would identify the first known antifungal agent in the mucky soil of a Virginia dairy farm.” From the Body Horrors archives, A Weapon From the Soil.

Learn more about lymphatic filariasis here and onchocerciasis here.

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  • Lazarus Kipkemoi Rutto

    What a refreshing article. More can be discovered from African herbal medicine.

  • Gilbert Ampem

    Great researches… Congratulations

  • Valerie J Brown (Cheers)

    Now….this is not only courageous but true genius! I use myself as a test subject all of the time. What better way to find cures than using ourselves for the study! Thank you and I have always known that we are the answer to our own madness in this world!

  • Valerie J Brown (Cheers)

    Bravo and thank you !

  • rebeccakreston

    Artemisinin works but there are increasing levels of resistance to it worldwide. Find out more from the WHO: http://who.int/malaria/media/artemisinin_resistance_qa/en/

  • Jon

    Thank you Rebecca Kreston, for such a well researched subject and such fine penmanship, of not only this article, but one you wrote 3.5 years ago, “The Parsitic Implications of Raccoons in Your Backyard”, http://blog.pkids.org/tag/baylisascaris-procyonis/, which led me to search your name, finding it here. As I Have been studying the dangers of neighborhood raccoon infiltration lately, your article is the most profoundly accurate, serious, artistic and humorously written piece I’ve read among many. In short, very enjoyable to read. Sincerely, Jon Whitacre

    • rebeccakreston

      Jon! These kinds of comments are, sadly, few and far between on this blog. Thank you very much for your kind words.

      • Jon

        Rebecca, thank you, as well, for your kind reply! I give honor to whom it is due; and you give it back to me! I am blessed beyond measure! May God bless you always!

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Body Horrors

Body Horrors looks at the history, anthropology and geography of infectious diseases and parasites.

About Rebecca Kreston

Rebecca Kreston is an infectious disease scholar trained in microbiology and epidemiology. She obtained her Biology degree from Reed College and her Masters of Science in Tropical Medicine from Tulane University. She's lived in tropical jungles, beaches and deserts around the world and has been exposed to several of the diseases that she studies. She currently lives in New Orleans, is a fourth year medical student and regularly battles insects of the Diptera, Siphonaptera and Hymenoptera orders.

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