Left to right: Satoshi Omura, Youyou Tu, William Campbell.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is split between two recipients — a pair of researchers who discovered a class of anti-parasitic drugs based on Avermectin, and a Chinese researcher who (re)discovered a powerful antimalarial agent called Artemisinin. Both the drugs have already saved countless lives, but for many this first science win for a researcher in China is about more than just medicine.
Malaria is, in one form or another, much older than mankind. This means that early humanity had to deal with it just as we do today, and just because they didn’t have a good understanding of what caused malaria doesn’t mean they didn’t have strong opinions about what cured it. Research had suggested that some, but not all, herb-cocktails used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat malaria could actually be effective — but what, if anything, was truly causing this effect?
During the Vietnam War, Youyou Tu and many other scientists worked for years to isolate and purify whatever the medicinal ingredient might be, eventually coming upon a reference to a crude chemical extraction procedure in an ancient Chinese text. Pushing through significant skepticism, Tu managed to replicate this procedure and found that what she collected had significant anti-malarial properties. She and her team volunteered to be the first human test subjects to prove the drug’s safety — and they did, powerfully.
It would be another several decades before Artemisinin would come to the attention of the world medical community.
Tu’s discovery has been hailed by many as a major win for traditional medicine — though aspirin was similarly synthesized by studying traditional North American practices, and it’s not generally seen as a holistic Gaia-drug. The fact is that it was real medicine that turned this ancient therapy from a vague hope for ailing people and into a concrete advantage. Traditional medicine did not find this cure, but rather sniffed around its location and diluted it with a flood of ineffective or harmful partner drugs.
An ancient version of science managed to find the general location of this drug, but the modern version of science is what nailed it down.
The other half of the prize, split between researchers Satoshi Ōmura, and William C. Campbell, is for the much more typical discovery of Avermectin. Isolated from bacterial colonies, this drug can kill the parasites that cause diseases such as river blindness and elephantiasis. These species were captured straight out of the ground, but they presented a simpler cocktail of possible therapeutic agents than anti-malarial herbal remedies.
Today, their work has led to the derived drug Ivermectin, which is used all over the world to fight a wide array of parasitic diseases, and it could very well be on the verge of pushing several parasites to extinction. Artemisinin can prevent up to 30% of malaria deaths in children, and 20% overall. The Nobel committee cites estimates that the drugs produced by both sides of this year’s Nobel win are responsible for saving as many as 100,000 lives every year, in Africa alone.
This year’s Nobel reaches back into the history of medicine, honoring researchers who have given us our modern opportunities to end certain diseases once and for all. Far from being nanobot-driven hyper-programmed graphene super-drugs, these are relatively simple but effective therapies that have had an immeasurable impact on real human lives. It’s nice to see such work get rewarded, even if it is many years after the fact.