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Nobel Laureate Medicine 2015: William Campbell

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Professor Campbell has always been fascinated by parasites, he even paints their mouthparts as if they were flowers in a vase. He has also spent most of his life figuring out how to kill them, and improving health and wellbeing of millions of individuals. Tiny and stealthy, roundworm parasites often go undetected in the human body until they have wreaked their havoc, robbing hosts of their health, sight, mobility and frequently their lives. People in some of the poorest and remotest places of the world are most vulnerable to parasitic-borne diseases, such as River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, and up until a few decades ago, little was available to treat roundworm diseases in their early stages. In the late 1970s, research by long-time parasite expert American Dr. William C. Campbell of Drew University and Satoshi Ōmura, a Japanese microbiologist who isolated natural products, yielded a new drug, Ivermectin, which killed roundworm larvae at a previously-hard to reach stage. Decades of doses have reduced cases of River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Central and South America. The success of the drug earned Campbell and Ōmura half of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “The importance of Ivermectin for improving the health and wellbeing of millions of individuals with River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, primarily in the poorest regions of the world, is immeasurable,” according to a press release from the Nobel Prize Foundation. “Treatment is so successful that these diseases are on the verge of eradication, which would be a major feat in the medical history of humankind.” Doing good The drug has been in production for more than 25 years, used in animals since 1981 and in humans since 1987, according to Campbell, and has done “tremendous things for animal and human health. The reason for the prize was not just the prospect of doing good, but actually doing good.” In the case of River Blindness, the parasite’s presence in the body causes chronic damage to the cornea, leading to blindness. Lymphatic Filariasis afflicts more than 100 million people, according to the Nobel Prize Foundation, and can cause swollen limbs (elephantiasis) once the parasites settle in the bloodstream and lymph nodes. “More than a billion doses have been given away to prevent River Blindness,” Campbell noted. “And it is used in combination with other drugs to prevent Elephantiasis, a disease of the lymph nodes.” I like parasites Campbell’s Nobel Prize capped a career studying parasites. “I have always found them fascinating,” he noted. “I heard about them in high school. I met Desmond Smyth, a professor at Trinity College in Dublin, and parasites were his area of expertise. He became my mentor and the interest in parasites carried over.” He found that parasites had complicated life cycles, and was interested in the idea of treating animals to get ri
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