The 2015 Nobel prizes: Physiology or medicine

Oct 12, 2015

By The Economist

Despite what the romantic poets would have you believe, the natural world is not a friendly place. It is full of dangerous creatures, and some of the most dangerous are the smallest: the bacteria, viruses and parasites that between them debilitate and kill millions of people every year. But it is possible, with a bit of cunning, a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, to turn a bit of nature against itself—to humanity’s benefit. And it is for exactly this sort of work that Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences has awarded the 2015 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine.

The three winners are William Campbell, Satoshi Omura and Tu Youyou. Drs Campbell and Omura were honoured for their discovery of avermectin, a drug that kills the parasitic worms responsible for river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, which between them infect about 125m people worldwide. Dr Tu—who originally trained in traditional Chinese medicine—discovered artemisinin, a drug that helps kill the parasite that causes malaria. Around 200m people are thought to be infected with malaria, and about half a million die each year.

Dr Omura is a microbiologist by training. His research at Kitasato University, in Japan, focused on a genus of bacteria called Streptomyces, which were known to produce complex chemicals that seemed to be able to weaken and kill rival micro-organisms. (Streptomycin, an early antibiotic and one of the first effective treatments for tuberculosis, is, as its name suggests, derived from Streptomyces. Selman Waksman, its discoverer, won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1952). Dr Omura developed ways of growingStreptomyces bacteria in the lab, allowing him to systematically culture thousands of strains and screen them to see whether any of those compounds might hold medical promise.

Dr Campbell, then of Drew University in New Jersey, heard of Dr Omura’s work and managed to obtain samples of his most promising bugs. An expert in parasite physiology, he was able to demonstrate that a certain chemical extracted from Dr Omura’s bacteria was indeed effective at killing parasites in animals. It was isolated and dubbed avermectin; after further lab work, a slightly chemically modified version called ivermectin was produced for human consumption. These days ivermectin is listed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on its List of Essential Medicines, which catalogues the drugs that even the most basic medical system needs.

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