Long Time No See: parasites finally under the spotlight of the Nobel Prize in Medicine!

The Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz has welcomed the news about the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that has been awarded to three researchers for their work on the development of antiparasitic drugs (nobelprize.org). The 2015 Nobel laureates are Dr William C Campbell and Dr Satoshi Ōmura, for the discovery and development of avermectin/ivermectin (an antifilariasis drug), and the Chinese researcher Dr Youyou Tu, the first woman in China to be a Nobel laureate, for her discovery of artemisinin, the drug that nowadays is the last line of defense against the Plasmodium species that cause human malaria.

Since the first prize in 1901, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to 201 researchers (12 women) (nobelprize.org), and on only four occasions previous to 2015 the prize was awarded to researchers working on a parasite related subject:

1902 – Ronald Ross – malaria
1907 – Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran – malaria
1926 – Johannes Andreas Grib Fibiger – nematode (Gongylonema neoplasticum, formerly Spiroptera carcinoma)
1948 – Paul Hermann Müller – DDT against arthropods

The “golden” era of parasite research was a narrow window between the end of XIX century and the first decades of XX century, when important parasitic diseases (some of which are designated today as “neglected tropical diseases”) were either newly discovered (e. g., Chagas disease) or intensively investigated for confirmation of vectors and causative agents (e. g., malaria, leishmaniasis, African trypanosomiasis).

Now, more than a century after the first award for a parasite related finding, scientists that worked on drug development for malaria and filariasis were recognised for their contribution to medical parasitology. One curious aspect of artemisinin is that it was developed against the heavy backdrop of the Vietnamese battlefields in the mid 1960s. The two contending armies, United States of America and North Vietnam, were deploying several strategies to win the war and these included scientific efforts to combat an almost invisible common enemy: the chloroquine resistant Plasmodium falciparum. North Vietnam asked their Chinese allies for help in this specific scientific challenge, and then in 1967 a mass screening of the herbs used in the traditional Chinese medicine for antimalarial activity were undertaken in China. On the American side a massive brute force approach to screening hundreds of thousands of compounds against plasmodium was undertaken. That was the beginning of a successful international race for an antimalarial drug, won by the Chinese researchers (Miller & Su 2011).

According to Miller and Su (2011), the development of artemisinin (or qinghaosu in the Chinese translation), as a secret military project, remained unknown outside China until a presentation by Dr Tu to World Health Organization officials in 1981. A PubMed survey shows that the first report on the artemisinin in non-Chinese journals appeared in 1982 (Bruce-Chwatt). Since then, an impressive publication record for artemisinin and avermectin (Burg et al. 1979) followed by ivermectin (Chabala et al. 1980) has accumulated in this database.

In the September 2015 [110(6)] issue, Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz publishes a review on malaria control in Brazil (Griffing et al. 2015) (“A historical perspective on malaria control in Brazil”). This review is grounded on a chronological account of the major events that have influenced the spread of malaria in Brazil since the colonial period. It is a timely update for the malaria research community that coincidentally is also aligned to this very good news of the Nobel Prize for parasite research.

The Nobel Committee has been very successful in selecting the laureates each year, but some important scientific achievements with high impact in medicine have been left without recognition of their discoverers. One of these findings was published by the Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz in 1909, the discovery of American trypanosomiasis and its agent, Trypanosoma cruzi, by Dr Carlos Chagas. This disease still poses a burden to most countries in Latin America and is also a monumental scientific challenge for current research in parasitology. For historical and political reasons that might never be completed revealed, the Nobel Committee failed to recognise the merit of this astonishing accomplishment for a single medical researcher from a nascent institution in the Southern Hemisphere: the complete description of a parasitic disease cycle including the clinical features, causative agent and both the final and intermediate hosts (invertebrate and vertebrate).

Adeilton Alves Brandão | Editor


Bruce-Chwatt LJ 1982. Qinghaosu: a new antimalarial. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 284: 767-768.

Burg RW, Miller BM, Baker EE, Birnbaum J, Currie SA, Hartman R, Kong YL, Monaghan RL, Olson G, Putter I, Tunac JB, Wallick H, Stapley EO, Oiwa R, Omura S 1979. Avermectins, new family of potent anthelmintic agents: producing organism and fermentation. Antimicrob Agents Chemother 3: 361-367.

Chabala JC, Mrozik H, Tolman RL, Eskola P, Lusi A, Peterson LH, Woods MF, Fisher MH, Campbell WC, Egerton JR, Ostlind DA 1980. Ivermectin, a new broad-spectrum antiparasitic agent. J Med Chem 10: 1134-1136.

Griffing SM, Tauil PL, Udhayakumar V, Silva-Flannery L 2015. A historical perspective on malaria control in Brazil. Mem Inst Oswaldo Cruz 110: 701-718.

Miller LH, Su X 2011. Artemisinin: discovery from the Chinese herbal garden. Cell 146: 855-858.

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