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3 Scientists Awarded Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine


Today, three scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine. It's for their work on parasitic diseases that have a huge impact in the developing world. William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura were recognized for discovering a compound that effectively kills roundworm parasites, and a Chinese scientist, Youyou Tu, won for her work in the 1970s in isolating a powerful drug to fight malaria. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In choosing this year's winners, the Nobel Committee said these three scientists revolutionized treatments for some of the most devastating parasitic diseases on the planet. Satoshi Omura and William Campbell are credited with discovering compounds in soil samples that led to a new class of drugs to treat elephantiasis, river blindness and other roundworm infections. Elephantiasis causes massive and terribly disfiguring swelling of the legs and scrotum. River blindness starts with an intense itching.

CRAIG WITHERS: Imagine, if you can, if every part of your body itches.

BEAUBIEN: Craig Withers is with the Carter Center in Atlanta. Withers says the itching from the parasites drives people crazy.

WITHERS: And you will see people taking the sharp edge of knives or bricks or sticks and just scratch themselves constantly for hours trying to get some relief. That is the first manifestation of the disease.

BEAUBIEN: Only later when the parasites invade their eyes does it make them blind. The work of Nobel winners Omura and Campbell finally led to ivermectin, the first drug to effectively treat river blindness. Campbell worked at the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s. Merck not only developed ivermectin. It made it available for free in the hardest hit parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Withers, at the Carter Center, says Omura and Campbell's compound also can make it impossible for the parasite to reproduce.

WITHERS: Their discovery introduces a potential to eliminate the disease entirely.

BEAUBIEN: The other winner, Youyou Tu, was part of a Chinese government team charged by Mao Zedong in the 1960s with finding a new drug to deal with a huge problem. The available malaria drugs were starting to fail. People were dying as the malaria parasite became resistant to the most common medications. Mao ordered a group of scientists to find a solution.

DYANN WIRTH: Tu Youyou is the person who really initiated this project in China.

BEAUBIEN: Dyann Wirth is the head of infectious diseases at the Chan School of Public Health at Harvard. She says Tu and her team started searching through traditional herbal treatments for fever.

WIRTH: They went back to the Chinese literature of medicinal chemistry - that is chemistry derived from plant, herbal treatments - identified hundreds of compounds that showed relief of fever and then began systematically testing these plant extracts.

BEAUBIEN: What they came up with was artemisinin. It's extremely effective at treating the most widespread and deadly form of malaria. Artemisinin has been credited with cutting in half the number of malaria deaths worldwide. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.