How 3 Individuals Won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology for a New Drug


Nobel Prizes are awarded on an annual basis, unfortunately often with little fanfare around the globe. In America, the winners of the World Series in Major League Baseball or the National Football League’s Super Bowl receive more recognition than those helping achieve major changes in human civilization. Three individuals, William C. Campbell, Satoshi Omura, and Youyou Tu, received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the development of a new parasitic disease drug. How did they achieve something so remarkable, and what does it mean for the world?

The Discovery

The three individuals awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in this category completed much of their research in the 1980s. As NPR notes, the trio have “transformed the treatment of parasitic diseases.” Omura and Campbell conducted their research on the roundworm parasite at the Kitasato University of Japan and Drew University in New Jersey, respectively.

Tu conducted research at the China Academy of Traditional Medicine in Beijing. The trio split the award after their original research was dredged up in the course of intense searches for known natural components that would help fight disease.

Omura and Campbell

Omura and Campbell worked on similar projects over a great distance. Omura began his work in Japan isolating novel strains of Streptomyces bacteria found in soil samples. These samples not only contains antibacterial components, but showed promise in combating other harmful microorganisms.

At the same time in the U.S., Campbell was exploring Omura’s findings and discovered that the components from one culture were particularly effective at treating parasites in domestic and farm animals. The active compound the duo was working with is known as avermectin. It was developed into a drug known as ivermectin that is used around the globe to treat people and animals for a range of parasitic diseases. Most notable among them are river blindness (previously untreatable) and lymphatic filariasis, better known as elephantiasis.


Tu’s work involved traditional herbal medicines used in China. She started her work by extracting compounds from the Artemisia annua, sweet wormwood, and testing those compounds on malaria parasites. She effectively took an ancient treatment for a resilient disease such as malaria, which The Guardian notes has previously developed resistance to drugs such as quinine and sulfadoxin-pyrimethanine, and turned it into a modern drug capable of combating one of the most deadly diseases in the world.

Named for the plant from which it was extracted, artemisinin has proven extremely effective against malaria. The disease is spread by parasites in mosquitos. When the bugs bite a human, the parasite is transferred. After passing around in the human bloodstream, it can be absorbed by secondary mosquitoes biting an infected human, furthering the spread of the disease.

How These Discoveries Occurred

Tu’s discovery of an effective form of artemisinin took trial and error, but came down to the boiling process of the extract. After finding that her treatment worked at times, but not at others, she was able to pinpoint the issue which was in boiling. She discovered that boiling destroyed the active ingredient in the extract, meaning it would have to be prepared at lower temperatures to be effective. Testing with a lower-temperature at extraction proved 100% effective.

Omura and Campbell’s discovery was credited by both as a result of trusting nature’s guidance. As mentioned earlier, Omura had discovered soil samples that he was able to use to grow bacteria. That bacteria produced its own anti-microbial compounds. It was from one of these compounds that he was able to isolate Streptomyces avermitilis. Campbell furthered that work by testing it on parasitic infections and assisting a team of scientists at Merck in developing a modified, more potent form of the drug.

These three individuals have helped change the lives of millions, by treating the effects of river blindness and protecting millions in Africa and Southeast Asia against malaria.

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