A trio of parasitologists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, thanks to their work developing drugs to combat some pretty nasty bugs. U.S. biologist William C. Campbell and Japanese microbiologist Satoshi Ōmura laid the groundwork for potent river blindness therapies, and Chinese scientist Tu Youyou won for her efforts combating malaria. Combined, they have “revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases,” the prize committee said in its announcement.
Ōmura cultured varieties of soil bacteria called Streptomyces, from which we get antimicrobial agents like streptomycin, discovering new potent strains that he passed along to Campbell. From these germs, Campbell synthesized a drug, Avermectin, a precursor to Ivermectin; Ivermectin is widely used to kill the parasitic worms that cause river blindness, and the treatment shows promise against bed bugs and other arthropod parasites.
Tu — the first person from China to win a medicine Nobel — scoured records of ancient Chinese therapies in the hunt for what would become Artemisinin, a derivative of the herb sweet wormwood. Artemisinin kills the protozoa Plasmodium that lives in malarial mosquitoes. In combination with other anti-malarial therapies, Artemisinin saves an estimated 100,000 lives per year in Africa.
This isn’t the first prize for malarial research — but it’s been a long time coming. In 1902, Ronald Ross won for figuring out mosquitoes were the vector, and Alphonse Laveran won in 1907 for his discovery that parasites attacked red blood cells, as the selection committee noted in a Q&A session on Facebook.
It’s Nobel week, so stay tuned on Tuesday when the winner of the Nobel Prize in physics is announced, and on Wednesday for the chemistry winner. The prize in literature will be awarded on Thursday, the prize in peace will be awarded on Friday, and the economics prize will be awarded on Monday, October 12.