Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015

No, nobody from King’s Muscle Lab has won it (maybe next year?), but do you know about the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine? The prize this year is shared. One half has gone to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura, and the other to Youyou Tu. All three scientists have undertaken work to develop new treatments for parasitic diseases, and it is thought that the impact of their work is likely to improve the lives or millions of people in developing nations, and save many lives. Progress in this field has been painfully slow for many years, so their breakthroughs are much needed.

Omura is a Japanese microbiologist, and has successfully cultured several strains of a group of soil bacteria called Streptomyces, with the aim to investigate their activity against dangerous microorganisms. Campbell then extracted and purified chemicals from these bacteria, the most powerful of which, Avermectin, was eventually found to be remarkably effective at killing the larvae of parasites that cause both river blindness and elephantiasis.  Thanks to this research and wide availability of the medication in some of the poorest countries in the world, these diseases are now on the verge of eradication.

Youyou Tu looked at ancient Chinese remedies to seek potential therapies for malaria, and found that a plant called Artemisia annua seemed promising but that previous research had had inconsistent findings. Going back to ancient literature gave her more clues, and allowed her to eventually extract the active ingredient and develop the drug Artemisinin. This drug kills the malarial parasites early in their development, and is extremely effective in treating severe malaria. When used with other drugs, it reduces death rates in malaria by about a fifth overall, and by almost a third in children. This means that it saves more than 100,000 lives each year in Africa alone.

Pretty incredible science – about as good as it gets at “making a difference”!

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