Nobel Prize in Medicine an encouragement for local scientists

Nobel Prize in Medicine an encouragement for local scientists

Friday, October 09, 2015

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The Nobel Prize in Medicine was this year shared by three scientists who used modern laboratory techniques to develop anti-parasitic drugs that were hidden in herbs and soil for many years.

On Monday, the Nobel Assembly announced that the prestigious prize was awarded to Irish-born Dr William Campbell, and Japanese Dr Satoshi Omura, who shared a half of the prize. The other recipient was Chinese Dr Youyou Tu.

Doctors Campbell and Omura developed Avermectin, from which they derived Ivermectin — a medicine that is very effective against river blindness and filariasis, which can cause swelling of the lymph system in the legs and lower body known as elephantiasis.

Dr Tu, a pharmacologist and chief professor at China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, was inspired by Chinese traditional medicine in isolating Artemisinin, a drug that is now part of standard anti-malarial regimens.

"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," said the Nobel Assembly.

Diseases, doctors will tell you, are caused by a variety of parasites, one group being parasitic worms which are estimated to afflict one-third of the world's population, and are particularly prevalent in Central and South America, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.

River blindness and lymphatic filariasis are two diseases caused by parasitic worms. River blindness, or Onchocerciasis, ultimately leads to blindness due to chronic inflammation in the cornea. Lymphatic filariasis, which afflicts more than 100 million people, causes chronic swelling and leads to life-long stigmatising and disabling clinical symptoms, including elephantiasis or lymphedema, and scrotal hydrocele.

Malaria, a mosquito-borne disease caused by single-cell parasites which invade red blood cells, causing fever, and in severe cases brain damage and death, has been with mankind for as far back as we can remember. More than 3.4 billion of the world's most vulnerable people are at risk of contracting malaria, and each year, we are told, the disease claims more than 450,000 lives, mostly children. In fact, in 2012 the World Health Organisation reported malaria deaths at 627,000.

What is of great significance about the drug therapies from these three Nobel awardees are their sources of origin -- Avermectin/Ivermectin are from microbes in soil, while Artemisinin was isolated from sweet wormwood, a Chinese herb, long documented in traditional medicine.

Scientists have told us that empirical evidence of the medical efficacy of ancient remedies in the centuries-old Chinese medical archives is fast emerging, as they are validated by modern scientific techniques.

Locally, we see similar research being done by the likes of Dr Henry Lowe, who, along with his team over the past 10 years, has made significant headway in the battle against cancer and other chronic diseases through the development of therapies from Jamaican plants such as ball moss.

Hopefully, as Dr Lowe and his team continue their painstaking research, which includes focus on diabetes, as well as viral infections such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, they will reap more success. Mankind can only benefit from their effort.

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