The number eight played a significant part in the announcement of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. The winners are all in their early 80s, namely 80-year-old Satoshi Omura, 85-year old William C. Campbell and 85-year-old Youyou Tu.
The three scientists were described as 'heroes in the truest sense of the word.' Their discoveries led to the production of antimicrobial drugs that saved millions of lives in countries suffering from elephantiasis, river blindness and malaria.
Campbell is an Irish parasitologist and biochemist at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Omura is a Japanese bioorganic chemist at Kitasato University in Tokyo, Japan and at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. They will each receive 25 percent of the 2015 Nobel Prize in the category for their discovery of the avermectin and ivermectin compounds.
Campbell's breakthrough dates back to 1975 during this work at a pharmaceutical company named Merck & Co. On the other side of the world, Omura was able to isolate new strains of Streptomyces bacteria from a soil sample he took at a Tokyo golf course. The Japanese professor then cultured the bacteria to see its effect on harmful microorganisms. Campbell then found that one of Omura's cultured bacteria can kill parasites in animals. The compound was called avermectin and it led to the creation of a new class of drugs that can kill parasitic larvae. The compound's biosimilar ivermectin is used as a preventive drug against lymphatic filariasis and river blindness. Ivermectin was able to reduce and prevent the numbers of people suffering from river blindness in Africa.
"(Ivermectin) reduces the number of parasites in the blood so that when a mosquito bites someone, it cannot transmit the disease to someone else," said Dr. Peter Hotez from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Hotez is also the college's dean of National School of Tropical Medicine.
Tu Youyou's life work and discovery, artemisinin, was inspired by traditional Chinese medicine. The malaria-battling compound was discovered in a wormwood plant. The discovery was made during Youyou's project with the Chinese military. She was recruited by then Chairman Mao Tse-tung to find a cure for malaria. Approximately 500,000 people die of malaria in Africa annually. The introduction of artemisinin drug and its impact has changed the way the world treats infected patients. Youyou is the first Chinese scientist who won a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
Nobel Assembly member Hans Forssberg announced the winners on Oct. 5, at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Campbell and Omura will share one-fourth of the Nobel Prize while Youyou will receive the other half. Apart from the cash prize, the three scientists will each receive a gold medal and a diploma during the official awarding ceremony set on Dec. 10, 2015.