A lot of excitement is generated during the week the Nobel Prizes are awarded. This particular Nobel week was extra special for any microbiologist or drug hunter as the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2015 was awarded to three scientists involved in discovering important and novel therapies for parasitic diseases – malaria and roundworms.
Youyou Tu was awarded for the discovery of artemisinin, a product derived from a plant (sweet wormwood) used in traditional Chinese medicine, that had excellent activity against the malaria parasite. She was instrumental in discovering the active ingredient in the plant, which can be a difficult and long process, as well figuring out its chemical structure.
This led to artemisinin becoming part of the treatment for malaria and a great deal of human suffering being avoided. Although artemisinin resistance has appeared, it still forms part of combination therapy used to treat malaria, and has formed part of new treatments that reduced death rates almost by half.
William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura were jointly recognized for the development of ivermectin. Again, this molecule originally started as a natural product, made by a bacterium, but was modified to improve its activity. Ivermectin works against several diseases in humans and animals, most notably river blindness (onchocerciasis) and elephantiatis (lymphatic filiariasis). WHO reports that >200 million people have taken ivermectin, in part because Merck provides it free of charge to those in need – a great example of global health philanthropy.
What was really exciting for those of us at IDRI was that these are diseases of poverty, often overlooked when handing out awards or prizes. These diseases impose huge burdens, which impact entire families and communities over lifetimes. These pioneering treatments have made real differences to the lives of so many people. We are inspired by these stories of success and their impact on global health.