STOCKHOLM/LONDON • Three scientists from Japan, China and Ireland, whose discoveries led to the development of potent new drugs against parasitic diseases such as malaria and elephantiasis, have won the Nobel Prize in medicine.
Irish-born Dr William Campbell and Japan's Dr 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, a parasitic infection that can lead to swelling of the arms and legs.
River blindness is an eye and skin disease caused by a parasite, and which can lead to loss of sight.
China's Dr 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.
Some 3.4 billion people, most of them living in poor countries, are at risk of contracting these 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 drug ivermectin, a derivative of avermectin made by Merck & Co, is used worldwide to fight roundworm parasites, while artemisinin-based drugs from firms including Sanofi and Novartis are the main weapons against malaria.
Dr Omura and Dr 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 further modified into ivermectin. The treatment is so successful that river blindness and lymphatic filariasis are now on the verge of being eradicated.
"I humbly accept the prize," 80-year-old Dr Omura, a professor emeritus at Kitasato University, said in an interview with the Nobel Foundation, thanking the "many, many researchers" who had contributed to his findings.
Dr Tu, 84, is the first female Chinese national to win a Nobel prize in science. She turned to a traditional Chinese herbal medicine in her hunt for a better malaria treatment, following the declining success of the older drugs chloroquine and quinine. This led to the isolation of artemisinin, a new class of anti-malaria drug.
Dr Tu has been chief professor at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine since 2000. She conducted research in the 1970s, at the height of China's Cultural Revolution, that led to the discovery of artemisinin, a treatment based on traditional medicine - a herb called sweet wormwood or Artemisia annua.
"We now have drugs that kill these parasites very early in their life cycle," said Professor Juleen Zierath, chair of the Nobel Committee. "They not only kill these parasites but they (also) stop these infections from spreading."
The 8 million Swedish kronor (S$1.4 million) medicine prize is the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year.
The Nobel awards week continues with the announcement of the prize for physics today, chemistry tomorrow, and literature on Thursday. The peace prize will be awarded on Friday, with the economics prize next Monday.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE