Nobel Prize for Medicine

I was really glad to see the Physiology/Medicine Prize go to the natural products researchers Tu Youyou, Satoshi Omura, and William Campbell (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2015/). Tu’s work decades ago had led to the discovery and development of artemisinin, which then went on to save countless lives. I was interested to learn that the anti-malarial program was launched by the Chairman Mao in response to the abysmal loss of life to malaria during the Vietnam war. Countless scientists, including Tu, were mobilized to evaluate the traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia with the goal of finding the “magic bullet”. This was an all-out effort that culminated in an amazingly simple insight on behalf of Tu: to extract qinghao’s active ingredient using cold, not typically prescribed hot, solutions. Of course we know that artemisinin is distinguished by the presence of a peroxide bridge, which makes the molecule heat-sensitive. Omura and Campbell were in turn recognized for their work on ivermectin. This is a great story in itself as it also highlights Merck’s timely attention to the discovery of life-saving therapeutic therapeutics by academics. Professor Omura is well known for many other natural products, including impressively selective proteasome inhibitor omuralide (it is easy to see we where that name comes from).

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