Japanese Professor Satoshi Ōmura is widely recognized for his discovery, development, biosynthesis and manipulation of useful chemicals derived from naturally-occurring microorganisms.
It is also for this valuable work – described by him as “a splendid gift from earth” – that he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine about a month ago. When he received the famous telephone call from the Nobel Committee he was surprised but said that he humbly accepted the Prize. “I did good things, but I merely borrowed the power of microbes,” he said to media after the announcement. But they turned out to be really good things. His and Professor Campbell’s discoveries have led to novel therapies against infections caused by roundworm parasites and have made an extremely important medical contribution to humankind.
A fruitful year
After receiving a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Tokyo in 1968 and two years later, another PhD in Chemistry from Tokyo University of Science, Ōmura became a Research Associate at Yamanashi University. He then began his career-long association with the Kitasato Institute in 1965, initially as a researcher and then over the years occupying various posts and culminating in 1990 as President.
His research career also includes a very important year spent in the US. In 1971 he had responded to an offer to go to the US as a Visiting Professor at Professor Max Tishler’s chemistry laboratory at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It was actually the lowest offer he had recieved but he thought: “if the pay is so low, there must be something else behind it”. And there was. Tishler became a great mentor and he opened up many doors and new encounters for Ōmura. “I was only abroad for a little over a year, but the time I spent was rich and fruitful,” he recalls. In 1972 when he returned to Japan and the Kitasato Institute, thanks to Professor Tishler’s connections he made a deal with the pharma company Merck & Co that resulted in an international academic-industrial alliance, which became a model for many significant future developments. He set up a laboratory to discover naturally occurring lead compounds for development into veterinary drugs. He went around Japan collecting and analyzing soil samples to find microorganisms with potential medicinal properties.
A major feat in the medical history of humankind
Ōmura became an expert in isolating natural products, and he focused on a group of bacteria, Streptomyces, which live in the soil and are known to produce a plethora of agents with antibacterial activities. Thanks to his extraordinary skills in developing unique methods for large-scale culturing and characterization of these bacteria, he was able to isolate new strains of Streptomyces from soil samples and he successfully cultured them in his lab. From thousands of different cultures he selected about 50 of the most promising with the intent that these would be further analyzed for their activity against harmful microorganisms. One of these cultures, found in 1974, later turned out to be Streptomyces avermitilis, the source of avermectin, the derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, as well as showing efficacy against an expanding number of other parasitic diseases. After decades of limited progress in developing durable therapies for parasitic diseases, these discoveries radically changed the situation. Treatment is now so successful that these diseases are on the verge of eradication, which would be a major feat in the medical history of humankind.
More good things
Using the income from the avermectin royalties, Ōmura, being aware of the national need for more high-quality medical facilities, made plans to open a new hospital facility at Kitamoto in Saitama Prefecture. There were objections from the local medical association but Ōmura continued to plead and finally, in 1989, the new complex, including a nursing school and vaccine production plant, saw the light of day. The Kitasato Institute Medical Center Hospital (KMC) is a “hospital with art” where artworks of various sizes are displayed in the wards, waiting rooms, hallways and public spaces. There is also an innovative spirit at the hospital, striving to discover new things and improve society. Thanks to Ōmura’s vision and leading role, collaborative research is being conducted with The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation of Brazil in a joint-effort to find cures for Chagas’ disease, Leishmaniasis and Schistosomiasis, enabling multidisciplinary interactions between researchers from both continents.
Ōmura has long believed that art and science both play a vital role in individual and social development. With a fund that he provided in his home prefecture in Yamanashi in 1995, the Yamanashi Academy of Sciences was established to help drive forward and accelerate the ability to bring science to bear and find ways to improve all aspects of social development.
In 2007 he invested his personal assets to establish the Nirasaki Ōmura Art Museum, which focuses on and displays art by female artists, predominantly Japanese. “People create Yamanashi, and Yamanashi creates Japan. I want to dream with the children, support their dreams and help them to come true,” Ōmura affirms.
Born: 1935, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan
Career: PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences,1968, University of Tokyo; PhD in Chemistry, 1970, Tokyo University of Science; Researcher, Kitasato Institute, Japan, 1965-1971; Professor, Kitasato University, Japan, 1975-2007; Professor Emeritus, Kitasato University since 2007.
Affiliation at the time of the award: Emeritus professor Kitasato University, Tokyo, Japan
Interests: Golf, cross-country skiing and art. “If not for art, my life would have been a boring one. Even when I was struggling or my soul was wandering around, I could stick to myself thanks to art.”
Other: He is the 23rd Japanese to receive a Nobel Prize and it is the country’s third Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Family: Married to Fumiko (widower since 15 years) , a daughter