Nobel in Medicine awarded to parasitic disease drug pioneers

Drs Tu, Omura and Campbell share this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine

05 Oct 2015

Today, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awarded half the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Dr Youyou Tu for her work on artemisinin – the basis of current first-line treatment for malaria – and the other half jointly to Prof. William Campbell and Prof. Satoshi Ōmura for their work on ivermectin to treat river blindness and lymphatic filariasis.

Combined, these discoveries have provided humankind with powerful means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people each year. Their impact is immeasurable.

“MMV is delighted to see these drug discovery pioneers receive the highest honor for medicine,” said Dr David Reddy, MMV’s CEO. “The world owes a lot to their discoveries. In particular, artemisinin and its derivatives remain the most efficacious treatment for malaria known to man. They are the basis of several treatments that MMV and partners have helped bring forward, saving hundreds of thousands of lives around the world. MMV’s goal is to continue Dr Tu’s legacy by bringing forward the next-generation of antimalarials.”

During the 1960s, Dr Tu formerly of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing, and her team set to work on a replacement for chloroquine. At the time, the first global malaria eradication campaign was failing as the parasite was developing widespread resistance to the treatment of choice – chloroquine. The Chinese government urgently sought a replacement to tackle malaria within its borders and respond to a call for help from Vietnam.

It was a combination of ancient wisdom and modern techniques that made the discovery possible. In line with the ideology of the Cultural Revolution to draw on the existing wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine, Dr Tu used ancient texts and folk remedies as her starting point. In doing so she came across a 2000-year-old document, the first to mention qinghao – otherwise known as artemisinin. It offered inspiration for a novel extraction process to maximize yield and efficacy. Dr Tu and her team then went on to validate their findings in patients and to modify artemisinin to generate the compound dihydroartemisinin, which she found had ten times the killing power of artemisinin and reduced the risk of reinfection. The rest is history.

Prof. Satoshi Ōmura recently gave the keynote address at the MMV co-hosted event ‘Malaria R&D in a time of global partnerships’ in Tokyo, Japan.