First awarded in 1901; The Nobel Prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious award available in the fields of physiology or medicine, chemistry, physics, economics, and literature. Nobel Prizes are awarded annually in recognition of outstanding academic, cultural and/or scientific advances. Each Nobel Laureate receives a Nobel Foundation medal, a diploma, and a sum of money, which is decided by the Nobel Foundation. As of 2012, each prize was worth approximately $1.2 million (USD).
This year, Nobel prizes in the fields of physiology or medicine and chemistry were awarded for: discoveries concerning a novel therapy against malaria and infections caused by roundworm parasites; and mechanistic studies of DNA repair, respectively.
Novel Therapies for Parasitic Infections
Diseases caused by parasites have plagued humankind for millennia and constitute a major global health problem. In particular, parasitic diseases affect the world’s poorest populations and represent a huge barrier to improving human health and well-being. This year’s Nobel Laureates for the field of physiology or medicine developed therapies that revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases. The Nobel was awarded ½ to Youyou Tu and ¼ each to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura.
Youyou Tu is recognized for her discovery of Artemisinin, a drug that has significantly reduced the mortality rates for patients suffering from Malaria. William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura are recognized for their discovery 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. These two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually.
The discoveries of Artemisinin and Avermectin have fundamentally changed the treatment of parasitic diseases. Malaria infects close to 200 million individuals yearly. Artemisinin is used in all Malaria-ridden parts of the world. When used in combination therapy, it is estimated to reduce mortality from Malaria by more than 20% overall and by more than 30% in children. For Africa alone, this means that more than 100 000 lives are saved each year. Today the Avermectin-derivative Ivermectin is used in all parts of the world that are plagued by parasitic diseases. Ivermectin is highly effective against a range of parasites, has limited side effects and is freely available across the globe. The importance of Ivermectin for improving the health and well-being of millions of individuals with River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, primarily in the poorest regions of the world, is immeasurable. 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.
The discoveries of Artemisinin and Avermectin have revolutionized therapy for patients suffering from devastating parasitic diseases. Tu, Campbell, and Ōmura have transformed the treatment of parasitic diseases. The global impact of their discoveries and the resulting benefit to mankind are truly unfathomable.
The cells’ toolbox for DNA repair
Each day our DNA is damaged by UV radiation, free radicals and other carcinogenic substances, but even without such external attacks, a DNA molecule is inherently unstable. Thousands of spontaneous changes to a cell’s genome occur on a daily basis. Furthermore, defects can also arise when DNA is copied during cell division, a process that occurs several million times every day in the human body. The reason our genetic material does not disintegrate into complete chemical chaos is that a host of molecular systems continuously monitor and repair DNA.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar for having mapped, at a molecular level, how cells repair damaged DNA and safeguard the genetic information. Their work has provided fundamental knowledge and insight into how a living cell functions.
In the early 1970s, scientists believed that DNA was an extremely stable molecule, but Tomas Lindahl demonstrated that DNA decays at a rate that ought to have made the development of life on Earth impossible. This insight led him to discover a molecular machinery, base excision repair, which constantly counteracts the collapse of our DNA.
Paul Modrich has demonstrated how the cell corrects errors that occur when DNA is replicated during cell division. This mechanism, mismatch repair, reduces the error frequency during DNA replication by about a thousand fold. Congenital defects in mismatch repair are known, for example, to cause a hereditary variant of colon cancer.
Aziz Sancar has mapped nucleotide excision repair, the mechanism that cells use to repair UV damage to DNA. People born with defects in this repair system will develop skin cancer if they are exposed to sunlight. The cell also utilizes nucleotide excision repair to correct defects caused by mutagenic substances, among other things.
These Nobel Laureates have provided fundamental knowledge and insight into how a living cell functions. Their respective breakthrough discoveries have been applied and used for the development and advancement of novel cancer treatments.