Drug discovery is in the spotlight as three scientists have been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious prizes for parasite targeting drugs. Announced yesterday at the Karolinska Institutet, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to William C Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura “for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites” the prize was shared with Youyou Tu “for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria.”
Most Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine category have implications for therapies, but the last time a prize was awarded for work directly relating to pharmaceuticals was for Sir James W. Black, Gertrude B. Elion and George H. Hitchings in 1988 "for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment." The last time it was awarded for a drug discovery was in 1952, when it was awarded to Selman A. Waksman "for his discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis."
Youyou Tu’s work on artemisinin seems to be a perfect choice for the Nobel Prize as the drug has become a standard treatment for malaria, a disease which causes 1.5% of all the world’s deaths. The award also comes after it was announced three weeks ago that artemisinin is responsible for an 11% reduction in malaria cases (out of a 50% overall decline), preventing 154 million cases of malaria.
Avermectin and its derivative compounds have found wide use against roundworms and other parasites such as fleas and ticks. Although it was originally developed with livestock in mind, the drug and derivatives have also found a key application in humans, as there are more than a billion people worldwide are infected by roundworm species. Ivermectin in particular, has been a valuable tool in reducing cases of river blindness in western Africa.
The selection of this work as Nobel Prize-worthy should be an uncontroversial decision considering their impact and the fact that they are directed at diseases in often neglected populations. It is rare to see anything from the world of pharmaceuticals generating positive attention in the mainstream, so it is refreshing to see positive attention being given to drug discovery.
Nobel Prize announcement: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015
BBC News story: Malaria: '700 million cases' stopped in Africa
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