The 2015 Nobel Prize: “Discoveries of immense consequence”
View the film from the press conference held in the Nobel Forum on 5 October. Film: Erik Cronberg
Jan Andersson, co-opted member of KI’s Nobel Committee, is visibly moved when commenting on this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which has been awarded to William C. Campbell, Satoshi Ōmura and Youyou Tu.
“This is a special year, as never before have we awarded a Nobel Prize for the treatment of a parasitic disease,” says Professor Jan Andersson. “The discoveries that we’re rewarding have been of immense consequence in reducing the number of deaths and disabilities caused by diseases like malaria, river blindness and elephantiasis. There are 3.4 billion people in 101 countries where these diseases are rife, and they know that if they fall sick, effective medicines are available.”
To my mind, the prize strengthens interest in malaria research, and the choice strengthens the Nobel Prize.
Mats Wahlgren, leading malaria researcher at KI, was not involved in the Nobel Committee’s decision, but is nonetheless delighted with this year’s laureates.
“It’s fantastic! A Nobile Prize that mainly affects the world’s poorest populations. To my mind, the prize strengthens interest in malaria research, and the choice strengthens the Nobel Prize. This we can see from the Nobel Assembly’s ability to take note of and acknowledge different kinds of discovery.”
Professor Wahlgren goes on to say that the two drugs discovered by this year’s laureates are still, four decades on, the most effective ones we have against these diseases. Avermectin is the most important treatment for the parasitic roundworm that causes diseases such as river blindness and elephantiasis, and the new combination drugs for malaria are still based on Artemisinin.
“Artemisinin saves maybe 100,000 seriously ill children a year in Africa alone, and millions have been saved in the past decade in total. The mortality rate is dropping, but from a high level of some 500,000 deaths a year. The goal is to eradicate the disease completely by 2050, which is an enormous challenge.”
As for the roundworm-related diseases, a complete eradication might be much closer at hand.
“Great advances have already been made in Latin America,” says Professor Wahlgren. “The parasitic worm diseases are more widespread in Africa, but much is being done and results are showing through.”
Tu discovered the treatment for malaria while working on a classified military project in post-Cultural Revolution China.
While the media discussions had mainly centred on other potential winners in the run-up to the announcement, the Nobel Committee’s Patrik Ernfors is unwilling to describe this year’s laureates as dark horses.
“Not at all, they are three very well-known names. But I won’t comment on the prior speculations – we do our job in the committee autonomously without being influenced by what’s being discussed on the outside.”
This said, Professor Ernfors points out, in the 1960s and 70s when Youyou Tu was first doing the research for which she is now being honoured, she was almost totally unknown to the West.
“Tu discovered the treatment for malaria while working on a classified military project in post-Cultural Revolution China. The West knew nothing about it until much later, at the end of the 1970s, and probably didn’t grasp its full significance until a WHO summit in the 1980s.”
Text: Anders Nilsson