This year’s Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for the discovery of 2 natural products that have set a paradigm for the treatment of infectious diseases. The Nobel committee recognized Satoshi Omura and William C. Campbell for their part in the discovery of the natural product Avermectin – a drug that is essentially responsible for the abolishment of roundworm infections (such as river blindness or lymphatic filariasis). Dr. Omura is an expert in laboratory cultivation of a class of bacteria called Streptomyces, which are profilic producers of bioactive molecules (such as the cephalosporins, vancomycin, rapamycin – and many more). By testing molecules extracted from Dr. Omura’s diverse library of bacteria, Dr. Campbell, a parasitologist, was identified an extract that could successfully kill parasitic worms in mice. The active component of this bacterial soup was named Avermictin and this class of molecules (avermectins) continues to be a critical treatment for parasitic diseases.
Tu Youyou is the third recipient of the prize for her work in the discovery of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin. Dr. Tu discovered artemisinin while investigating the bioactive components of traditional chinese medicine (interestingly this endeavor was part of a secret funding effort started by Mao Zedong - read more here or here). She isolated this molecule from wormwood (Artemisia annua) – a plant always suspected to have anti-malarial activity. Since Dr. Tu's discovery of the anti-malarial properties of this molecule, derivatives of artemisinin have gone on to become crucial in controlling the malaria epidemic.
Over the last few decades many researchers’ enthusiasm for drugs derived from natural sources has waned. Yet with the rapid influx of sequenced bacterial, plant and fungal genomes, the extensive diversity of naturally produced small molecules is apparent. This year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine underscores the major impact natural products have made on world health and will perhaps advance the ongoing resurgence in natural products research.