Antiparasite Drug Developers Win Nobel

William Campbell, Satoshi Omura, and Youyou Tu have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in recognition of their contributions to antiparasitic drug development.

Oct 5, 2015
Karen Zusi and Tracy Vence

Left to right: Satoshi Omura, William Campbell, Youyou TuSATOSHI OMURA, DREW UNIVERSITY, LASKER FOUNDATION

William Campbell, Satoshi Omura, and Youyou Tu have made significant contributions to treatments for river blindness, lymphatic filariasis, and malaria; today (October 5) these three scientists were jointly awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in recognition of these advancements.

Tu is being recognized for her discoveries leading to the development of the antimalarial drug artemisinin. Campbell and Omura jointly received the other half of this year’s prize for their separate work leading to the discovery of the drug avermectin, which has been used to develop therapies for river blindness and lymphatic filariasis.

“These discoveries are now more than 30 years old,” David Conway, a professor of biology of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told The Scientist. “[These drugs] are still, today, the best two groups of compounds for antimalarial use, on the one hand, and antinematode worms and filariasis on the other.”

Omura, a Japanese microbiologist at Kitasato University in Tokyo, isolated strains of the soil bacteria Streptomyces in a search for those with promising antibacterial activity. He eventually narrowed thousands of cultures down to 50.

“I humbly accept, and am very surprised,” Omura told the Nobel Foundation. “I did good things, but there are many, many good researchers in the world. But I may be very, very lucky so far,” he added.

“I think it’s great,” Hirofumi Nakano, one of Omura’s former colleagues at Kitasato University, told The Scientist. “I think such a discovery in medicine should be honored with the Nobel Prize. It’s not basic research, but it’s very great work for human beings.”

Now research fellow emeritus at Drew University in New Jersey, Campbell spent much of his career at Merck, where he discovered effective antiparasitic properties in one of Omura’s cultures and purified the relevant compounds into avermectin (later refined into ivermectin).

“Bill Campbell is a wonderful scientist, a wonderful man, and a great mentor for undergraduate students,” said his colleague Roger Knowles, a professor of biology at Drew University. “His ability to speak about disease mechanisms and novel strategies to help [fight] these diseases. . . . that’s been a great boon to students.”

Tu began searching for a novel malaria treatment in the 1960s in traditional herbal medicine. She served as the head of Project 523, a program at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing aimed at finding new drugs for malaria. Tu successfully extracted a promising compound from the plant Artemisia annu that was highly effective against the malaria parasite. In recognition of her malaria research, Tu won a Lasker Award in 2011.

Tu “had a very modest and humble career,” said Conway. “It does give some inspiration when you see the impacts of your work, eventually.”