Why the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine is Important

October 7, 2015

Parasitic diseases rarely cause morbidity or mortality in countries north of the equator. But for the vast number of the world’s poorest people residing in tropical and subtropical areas of the planet, these diseases are enormous barriers to improvements in health and productivity.

The Nobel committee this week awarded the prize in Physiology or Medicine to three scientists whose efforts have developed therapies which are bringing devastating parasitic diseases to the brink of eradication. Drs William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura were awarded half the prize (1/4 each) for their highly effective drug Avermectin, a treatment for
River Blindness, and Lymphatic Filariasis (also known as Elephantitis) which collectively affect hundreds of millions of people every year. According to Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI):

“Filarial diseases are the most devastating of the neglected tropical diseases in terms of social and economic impact. Families and communities have to bear the brunt of long-term healthcare, coupled with loss of productivity and earnings due to the incapacity to work. The disabling and disfiguring effects on the individual lead to social stigmatization and isolation.”

The other half of the Nobel prize went to Youyou Tu for her work in developing a treatment for malaria. Malaria is second only to respiratory diseases as the world’s leading cause of death from infectious disease. Tu is the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize. She has neither a medical degree nor a doctorate but went to pharmacology school in Beijing before becoming a researcher at the Academy of Chinese Traditional Medicine. In 1967, Communist leader Mao Zedong decided there was an urgent national need to find a cure for malaria. She was recruited to a top-secret government unit known as “Mission 523” where she led the project and painstakingly combed ancient Chinese medicine texts in her search for potential treatments from plants. Her dogged attempts at isolating plant compounds which would attack the malaria parasite finally resulted in Artemisinin, distilled from the plant Artemisia annua.

The NobeMedicine Nobelsl Prize press release sums up the combined outcomes of these developments this way: “These two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually. The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable.” See The Guardian article for more details about the work of all these scientists.

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