Nobel prize in medicine goes to pioneers in parasitic diseases – as it happened

Last modified: 11: 02 AM GMT+0

The first of three prestigious science prizes on the first day of Nobel week are revealed: William Campbell and Satoshi Omura for their work on a therapy against roundworm, shared with Youyou Tu, for a therapy against malaria

We’re now bringing down the curtain on this blog. Read the latest story on today’s winners here. Tomorrow it’s the Nobel Prize for Physics – join us again.

Sarah Bosely has some details on avermectins, the drugs combating some parasites developed by Campbell and Ōmura.

The avermectins are a group of naturally occurring compounds, which have strong insecticidal and anti-worm properties. One of the family, ivermectin, was a breakthrough discovery in 1987 in the treatment of river blindness (onchocerciasis), one of the neglected tropical diseases that wreck the lives of many millions of poor people in the developing world and are rarely a goal for drug developers because there is no market in wealthy countries.

The earlier drugs for river blindness had serious side-effects and were not as effective as ivermectin, which kills the larval Onchocerca volvulus worms – microfilariae – that live in the subcutaneous tissue of an infected person.

It does not kill the adult worms so it has to be repeated once a year for up to 18 years to cure somebody. It is an oral pill, so easy to take, however, and the manufacturer, Merck, has promised to donate the tablets for free for as long as necessary to eliminate the disease.

The disease causes intense itching, skin discolouration, rashes, and eye disease, which often leads to blindness. It is spread by infected black flies which breed in rivers.

The World Health Organisation says the drug has “transformed the lives of millions of people suffering from onchocerciasis” since 1987.

My colleague Ian Sample has now written this longer version of our story on today’s announcement.

Here’s an interview with Omura by the Nobel Prize website people. “I humbly accept and I’m very surprised,” he says.

EXCLUSIVE Interview with Satoshi Ōmura on golf, great scientists, and the 2015 #NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2015

Another view of the moment Professor Urban Lendahl announced the winners.
Another view of the moment Professor Urban Lendahl announced the winners. Photograph: FREDRIK SANDBERG/AP

My colleague Sarah Boseley has sent this background on Artemisinin, the anti-malaria drug developed by Tu.

Artemisinin is now the mainstay of malaria treatment in Africa – a drug that has helped turn around the epidemic.

Malaria parasites have developed resistance to every drug that has been thrown at them, beginning with quinine. Chloroquine and later sulfadoxine-pyrimethanine, which were the mainstays of treatment through the latter part of the 19th century, were no longer reliable by the early part of this century and new drugs were desperately needed.

Artemisinin was a new drug and yet an old drug – a plant that was a staple of traditional Chinese medicine. It has transformed malaria treatment. The decline in malaria deaths in Africa and Asia is attributed to the drug in conjunction with the widespread use of insecticide-impregnated bednets, two of the tools without which the global eradication campaign would be struggling.

Between 2000 and 2013, malaria mortality rates decreased by an estimated 47% worldwide and by 54% in Africa. Among babies and children under five, the main target group. death rates have declined by 53% globally, and by 58% in Africa, although the disease still killed 453,000 in 2013.

Wary of the real dangers of resistance, there has been a huge effort to ensure artemisinin is not used alone, but in combination with other drugs. Even so, there are reports of resistance developing in south-east Asia.

We’re told Tu Youyou might be in the US at the moment. Here’s a photo of her, just in case you’re there too, happen to spot her and want to pass on the good news. You never know.

Tu Youyou in 2011.
Tu Youyou in 2011. Photograph: CHINA STRINGER NETWORK/REUTERS

Nobel have tweeted this mini-interview with Juleen Zierath, the Swedish-American biologist who chairs the Nobel committee for medicine.

Happy it was a surprise - Chair Nobel Committee @JuleenRZierath #NobelPrize

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2015

And as-yet unnamed member of the Nobel committee is about to give an interview, which you can watch live via this link, if you want.

Stay tuned – live streaming of interview with Nobel Committee member for Medicine coming up #NobelPrize 2015

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2015

Here’s our initial report on today’s announcement.

One questioner asks if Tu’s prize is, in effect, an award for traditional Chinese medicine. The response from the Nobel committee is a definite no: it awards her medical research for a drug which was “inspired” by traditional Chinese medicine.

The press conference and awards event is now over.

Urban Lendahl, secretary of the Nobel committee for physiology or medicine, addresses the press conference.
Urban Lendahl, secretary of the Nobel committee for physiology or medicine, addresses the press conference. Photograph: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
The portraits of the winners of the Nobel Medicine Prize 2015.
The portraits of the winners of the Nobel Medicine Prize 2015. Photograph: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images


The New Scientist ran a lengthy profile of Tu when she won the 2011 Lasker prize. It’s behind a paywall, but my colleague James Randerson has sent this snippet:

Tu was part of a secret drug discovery project set up by Mao Zedong in 1967 known only as Project 523. She was sent to Hainan province to see the impact of malaria for herself, meaning she had to leave her daughter behind at a local nursery. When she came back she says her daughter did not recognise her. “The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life,” she said.

“I saw a lot of children who were in the latest stages of malaria,” Tu says. “Those kids died very quickly.”

Some other interesting quotes from Tu in the piece.

“It is scientists’ responsibility to continue fighting for the healthcare of all humans.”

“What I have done was what I should have done as a return for the education provided by my country,”


The Nobel committee, in answer to a question, reveal that, as yet, Tu has not been reached to be told she’s won the prize. Anyone have her mobile number and want to make a welcome phone call?

The announcer notes, not surprisingly, that the reaction from winners on learning the news is “generally positive”.

Associated Press win the minor, parallel media race to produce the first useable-length summary of today’s win. Here it is:

Three scientists from Ireland, Japan and China won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discoveries that helped doctors fight malaria and infections caused by roundworm parasites.

The Nobel judges in Stockholm awarded the prestigious prize to Irish-born William Campbell, Satoshi Omura and of Japan and Tu Youyou the first ever Chinese medicine laureate.

Campbell and Omura were cited for discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites, while Tu was rewarded for discoveries concerning a novel therapy against malaria.

“The two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually,” the committee said. “The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immensurable.”

The medicine award was the first Nobel Prize to be announced. The winners of the physics, chemistry and peace prizes are set to be announced later this week. The economics prize will be announced next Monday. No date has been set yet for the literature prize, but it is expected to be announced on Thursday.

Here’s a 2014 video about the work of Omura. It’s packed with charts which looked like they were created on a 1993 edition of PowerPoint, but should nonetheless be interesting.

In 2011, Tu won the Lasker~DeBakey clinical medical research award for her work on artemisinin, the anti-malaria drug she developed. On their website - but sadly not embeddable in the page – is an interview with her.

The Nobel announcement is now detailing the work of Tu, who is the 12th woman to get the prize in physiology or medicine.

#NobelFacts Chinese Youyou Tu is the 12th women awarded the #NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2015

The Nobel Twitter feed has just sent this mini-graphic about the sort of health problems at the centre of today’s announcement.

2015 #NobelPrize #Medicine therapies parasitic diseases River Blindness, Lymphatic Filariasis (Elephantiasis),Malaria

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2015

It’s Peter Walker here, taking over while Ian goes to write the story about the announcement. The Nobel ceremony is now hearing about the work of Campbell and Omura in combating parasites in humans.

William Campbell and Satoshi Omura for their work on a therapy against roundworm, shared with Youyou Tu, for her work on a therapy against malaria. More coming.

The winners of the 2015 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine

And the winners are:

BREAKING NEWS The 2015 #NobelPrize #Medicine to William C. Campbell @DrewUniversity, Satoshi Ōmura and Youyou Tu

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2015

Here we go!

And the Nobel livestream is up and running, complete with oh-no-am-I-being-recorded swearing from the audience. Somewhere in a backroom the serious discussions should be over by now, with only the phone call to make. Of course, that can go wrong.

Another contender for the prize has to be Sir Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of DNA fingerprinting. But I wonder if his work is better suited to the chemistry prize, which we’ll hear on Wednesday?

The medicine prize in numbers:

The Nobel assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm has handed out 105 medicine prizes since 1901. A third have gone to sole winners. In all, 207 people have been awarded the prize.

Only 11 woman have won the medicine Nobel, with four named in the past decade.

The youngest person to win the medicine prize was Frederick Banting who was honoured for the discovery of insulin at only 32 (and later voted as the fourth greatest Canadian). At the other end of the scale was Peyton Rous, who was 87 when he got the prize for discovering viruses that cause cancer.

The average age of winners is 58 years old.

This is the moment the 2014 medicine prize winners John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser congratulated each other on the Guardian’s science podcast. Later, they told the story about how they once ventured out into the wild to get lost on purpose.

Or will this year’s prize honour work on the microbiome - the zillions microbes that live in and on us, and outnumber our own cells in the unsettling sort of way we’ll just have to get used to? I’m not convinced it’s time yet, but my betting record is dismal. The only Nobel prize I predicted correctly was the one everyone knew was coming: the 2013 physics prize to bosonic octogenarian Peter Higgs. The only question that year was who he would share the prize with, and who would be passed over. Did I put any money on? Did I heck.

The Cancer Research Lab at the University of California at Berkeley has its hopes up. And rightly so. What I don’t understand is why they are awake at this hour. It’s 2am on the US west coast.

Fingers crossed: Doudna/CRISPR for chemistry #nobelprize and Allison/#immunotherapy for medicine -- that would be a twofer for UC Berkeley!

— CRL Berkeley (@CRLBerkeley) October 5, 2015

Runners and riders

The citation crunchers over at Thomson Reuters have come up with their annual predictions, and fancy Kazutoshi Mori at Kyoto University and Peter Walter at the University of California, San Francisco, for discovering a mechanism known as the unfolded protein response, which acts like a quality control system for cells. Others they have in the running are Jeffrey Gordon at Washington University in St Louis for his work on the gut microbiome and metabolism, and a trio including Alexander Rudensky at Cornell and Rockefeller, Shimon Sakaguchi at Osaka University and Ethan Shevach at the NIH in Maryland for their discoveries on T cell function and the Foxp3 transcription factor.

I’d love to see the prize go to Karl Deisseroth at Stanford and others for inventing optogenetics - an incredible tool that has pretty much transformed areas of neuroscience. But is it medicine or is it one for the chemistry prize - which increasingly goes for work in biomedical research?

Other contenders have to be Stephen Elledge at Harvard and Evelyn Witkin. The duo shared this year’s Lasker prize for basic medical research for “discoveries concerning the DNA-damage response—a fundamental mechanism that protects the genomes of all living organisms.” Witkin is 94 and would be the oldest winner ever!

The 2014 winners

Last year, the medicine prize went to neuroscientists John O’Keefe at University College London, and May-Britt and Edvard Moser, a married couple at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, for decades of painstaking work that led to the discovery of brain cells that map and track our position in space. Without them, we’d be lost.

The trio joined the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast a couple of days after the announcement, and it quickly became clear they hadn’t had a chance to congratulate each other on the prize until that moment. May-Britt and Edvard spent time in O’Keefe’s lab as postdocs.

Here is how the Nobel Assembly described their breakthrough:

How do we know where we are? How can we find the way from one place to another? And how can we store this information in such a way that we can immediately find the way the next time we trace the same path? This year’s Nobel Laureates have discovered a positioning system, an “inner GPS” in the brain that makes it possible to orient ourselves in space, demonstrating a cellular basis for higher cognitive function.

May-Britt and Edvard Moser weren’t the first married couple to win the Nobel prize in medicine. Gerty and Carl Cori shared half of the medicine prize (with Bernardo Alberto Houssay) for their work on the catalytic conversion of glycogen.

The science world awaits...

And so to Nobel season!

Having spent a good deal of his life building weapons factories and inventing ways to blow things up, Alfred Nobel (1833 - 1896) left a fortune in his will to establish the world’s most prestigious prizes for the benefit of humankind. It’s as if he wanted to make up for something.

The Nobel prize announcements, celebrations and bitter arguments over who should have won, start today when we’ll hear the winner, or more likely winners, of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. We expect the committee to reveal all around 10.30am UK time.

After today’s prize, we have physics tomorrow at around 10.45am UK, and the chemistry prize about the same time on Wednesday. I’ll be live-blogging the lot, explaining the work the awards have been given for, and gathering reaction from other scientists. There is 8m kronor (£631,000) for each whole prize and much more in kudos.

I hope you can join me.


Ian Sample and Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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