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Nobel Laureate Medicine 2015: Satoshi Ōmura

omura photo alexander mahmoud
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 furthe
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