The 2015 Nobel Prize Shines a Spotlight on TCM Research

By Kathryn Feather, Senior Associate Editor

Traditional Chinese Medicine continues to make it's presence felt on the world stage as the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura for their work on combating parasites and YouYou Tu for her discoveries in combating Malaria.

Anti-Parasite Therapies

Omura, a Japanese biologist and expert in isolating natural products, focused on Streptomyces, bacteria that lives in the soil and was known to produce agents with antibacterial properties. Omura actually isolated new strains of Streptomyces from soil samples and successfully cultured them in the laboratory. William C. Campbell, an expert in parasitic biology acquired Omura's Streptomyces cultures and studied their efficacy. Campbell was able to demonstrate that a component from one of the cultures was efficient against parasites in farm animals. The bioactive agent was purified and chemically modified into a compound called Ivermectin, which was later tested in humans with parasitic infections. The compound effectively killed parasite larvae. Both Omura and Campbell's contributions led to the discovery of a new class of drugs that can combat parasitic diseases.

According to the World Health Organization, Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites transmitted to people through the bites of infected female mosquitos. Almost half the world's population - 3.2 billion people - are at risk for contracting Malaria. Malaria has traditionally been treated with chloroquine or quinine, but resistance to antimalarial drugs has proved problematic. By the late 1960's, the disease was on the rise as eradication efforts began to fail.

nobel prize - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark According to the Nobel Assembly, this is when YouYou Tu turned to Traditional Chinese Medicine for a possible answer. "From a large-scale screen of herbal remedies in Malaria-infected animals, an extract from the plan Artemisia annua emerged as an interesting candidate. However, the results were inconsistent so Tu revisited the ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her in her quest to successfully extract the active component from Artemisia annua. Tu was the first to show that this component, later called Artemisinin, was highly effective against the Malaria parasite, both in infected animals and in humans. Artemisinin represents a new class of antimalarial agents that rapidly kill the Malaria parasites at an early stage of their development."

Impact on World Health

These discoveries have greatly impacted the treatment of parasitic diseases worldwide, bringing a spotlight to Traditional Chinese Medicine and the potential it has to impact today's medicial issues. According to the Nobel Assembly, these discoveries have fundamentally changed the treatment of parasitic diseases. In some of the poorest regions of the world, diseases like River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis on the verge of eradication. Malaria impacts approximately 200 million individuals every year and Tu's discovery is used all Malaria-ridden parts of the world. When used in combination therapy, it is estimated to reduce mortality from Malaria by more than 20% overall and by more than 30% in children. To give some perspective, in Africal alone more than 100,000 lives could be saved each year.

According to the Nobel Assembly, "The discoveries of Avermectin and Artemisinin have revolutionized therapy for patients suffering from devastating parasitic diseases. Campbell, Omura and Tu have transformed the treatment of parasitic diseases. 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."

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