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Nobel Prize in Medicine for Parasite-Fighting Therapies

Parasitic Disease

Story at-a-glance -

  • The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been jointly awarded to three doctors whose work has fundamentally changed the treatment of parasitic diseases around the globe
  • Avermectin, which treats diseases caused by parasitic worms, was isolated from a group of soil bacteria called Streptomyces
  • The anti-malarial drug Artemisinin was inspired by traditional Chinese medicine and is derived from the plant Artemisia annua

By Dr. Mercola

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been jointly awarded to three doctors whose work has fundamentally changed the treatment of parasitic diseases around the globe.

What is perhaps most notable is that their discoveries are derived from natural products, once again showing that nature can be a powerful source of medicine. The majority of new drugs (70 percent) introduced in the US are derived from natural products, primarily plants.1

So while the fact that the Nobel Prize was awarded to the discovery of natural-based medicines isn't exactly shocking, it's important to recognize the healing potential found in nature. As noted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health:2

"The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been jointly awarded to Drs. Youyou Tu, William C. Campbell, and Satoshi Ōmura for their discoveries of the natural products artemisinin and avermectin.

Dr. Tu received the award for her work on artemisinin, an anti-malarial agent from Artemisia annua, a plant that has been used in reducing fevers for centuries and is well documented in traditional Chinese medicine.

Drs. Campbell and Ōmura discovered the antibiotic avermectin when they screened streptomycetes, microorganisms commonly found in soil, for natural products with anti-infectious activity. Both natural products have had a profound effect on the treatment of parasitic diseases."

Avermectin to Fight River Blindness Comes from Soil Bacteria

William Campbell from Duke University in the US and Satoshi Ōmura of Kitasato University, Japan, are sharing half of the $960,000 Nobel Prize award for their work to develop Avermectin.

Avermectin has essentially eradicated river blindness and greatly reduced cases of lymphatic filariasis, which are two diseases caused by parasitic worms.

River blindness, which leads to chronic inflammation in the cornea, leads to blindness, while lymphatic filariasis causes chronic swelling and disabling symptoms, including "elephantiasis," which is disfiguring swelling in the lower body.

Dr. Omura, a microbiologist, isolated strains from a group of soil bacteria called Streptomyces in the 1970s. The bacteria were known to have antimicrobial properties, and Dr. Omura focused on about 50 out of several thousand cultures, which he believed to be the most promising.

The Nobel Committee praised Dr. Omura for his "extraordinary skills in developing unique methods" for characterizing natural products in the soil bacteria, but he downplayed his work stating, "I merely borrowed the power of microbes."3

Dr. Campbell, an expert in parasite biology, obtained the cultures from Dr. Omura and found one (taken from a golf course in Japan) that worked to eradicate parasites in animals.

The purified version was named Avermectin and was later developed into the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin used in both animals and humans to treat a variety of parasites.

Artemisinin to Fight Malaria Inspired by Traditional Chinese Medicine

Youyou Tu, a pharmacologist at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing, received the other half of the Nobel Prize for developing the anti-malarial drug Artemisinin in the 1960s and '70s.

At that time, malaria was typically treated with chloroquine or quinine, but its effectiveness was waning and malaria was on the rise. Dr. Tu turned to traditional Chinese herbal medicine and screened for herbs that seemed helpful in treating malaria-infected animals.

An extract from the plant Artemisia annua seemed promising but led to inconsistent results. According to a Nobel Prize press release:4

"… Tu revisited the ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her in her quest to successfully extract the active component from Artemisia annua. Tu was the first to show that this component, later called Artemisinin, was highly effective against the Malaria parasite, both in infected animals and in humans."

In a clinical trial conducted in the 1970s, Artemisinin had startling effects on malaria patients; all 18 patients given the herb felt better within hours and recovered within days.5 Malaria is caused by a parasite of the species plasmodium, which is spread from person to person by infected mosquitoes.

Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are necessary to control this disease and to save the lives of those afflicted. Artemisinin is able to rapidly kill malaria parasites at an early stage of development, which explains how it's so effective at treating even severe malaria.

When used in combination therapy, Artemisinin is estimated to reduce malaria deaths by more than 20 percent overall and more than 30 percent in children. This amounts to more than 100,000 lives saved each year in Africa alone.6 The press release added:

"The discoveries of Avermectin and Artemisinin have revolutionized therapy for patients suffering from devastating parasitic diseases. Campbell, Ōmura, and Tu have transformed the treatment of parasitic diseases. The global impact of their discoveries and the resulting benefit to mankind are immeasurable."

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Parasitic Diseases Kill More Than 1 Million People Every Year

Parasitic infections are responsible for a staggering number of deaths worldwide every year. Malaria is one of the most well known. Every year, malaria results in about 1 million deaths.

It is such an enormous problem in Africa that each African child has, on average, between 1.6 and 5.4 episodes of malaria fever every year.

Further, the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which include parasitic diseases like lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, and Guinea worm, kill about 500,000 people each year, primarily in rural areas of low-income countries.

Even in developed countries, parasites can contribute to disease like irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues, and possibly even cancer. Signs and symptoms that you've been infected with an intestinal parasite of the non-beneficial variety (some parasites may actually be beneficial) include:

Subcutaneous nodules Eye inflammation (conjunctivitis and retinitis) Blindness
Dysentery Hives (urticaria) Diarrhea
Coughing or wheezing Enlargement of liver and spleen (hepatosplenomegaly) Fever and abdominal Pain

Many of these symptoms can be caused by other conditions as well, so if you suspect you're infected, seek the help of a knowledgeable natural health care practitioner for proper diagnosis and treatment.

For instance, Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt, one of the leading authorities on Lyme disease, addresses parasitic infections first, as part of the treatment. The "Klinghardt antimicrobial cocktail," which includes wormwood (Artemisinin), phospholipids, vitamin C, and various herbs, is an integral part of this treatment.

In the meantime, eating raw garlic (smashing the cloves first to activate their beneficial properties) and raw pumpkin seeds may help you to get rid of them. Maintaining a healthy gut by eating naturally fermented foods (like fermented vegetables) and/or taking a high-quality probiotic may also help prevent and eradicate parasitic infections.

How to Harness the Power of Medicinal Plants

It's no surprise that the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to treatments derived from nature, including plants. Ancient civilizations relied on plants to treat illnesses. The ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, a scroll from 1550 BC that's over 100 pages long, details 700 medicinal herbs and how to use them. The Greek Corpus Hippocraticum from the 16th century BC also details the use of herbal medicine.7

Later, during the 1800s and early 1900s, the knowledge of herbal medicine was passed down from one generation to the next. Typically, the woman of the house was well versed in the use of herbs for healing, and would act as the family's physician not only to treat illnesses, but also to prepare various herbal wellness tonics and other remedies.

Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the world's population still uses traditional remedies, including plants, as their primary health care tools.8

In the past, I have regarded herbs, in many cases, as a safer alternative to drugs, useful for treating various symptoms but not to treat the underlying cause. I have since revised my opinion on this quite significantly, and now realize that herbs can help support your health from a very basic level, just as foods do. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, you could walk into a drug store and find hundreds of herbal extracts for sale. Upwards of 90 percent of the population at that time knew how to use the medicinal plants growing in their backyards to treat common illnesses and injuries; they had to, as this was virtually the only "medicine" available.

With the rise of what is now known as conventional allopathic medicine shortly before World War I, herbalism slowly fell out of favor and began to be thought of as folk medicine. Rather than viewing nature as the source of healing, as had been done for centuries, people began to view drugs and other "modern" healing methods as superior. If you would like to start using medicinal plants more often, here are nine tips to do so:9

  1. Learn to identify three medicinal plants you don't already know that grow in your region and learn their uses.
  2. Add at least one of these herbs to your garden or to pots on your windowsill.
  3. Make a tincture, tea, syrup, or salve. Or make one of each!
  4. Harvest and dry mint, lemon balm, calendula, nettles, or any other plant growing in your region.
  5. Find a plant to sit with quietly each morning for a week; draw the plant.
  6. Identify one healing skill you would like to have but don't, and find a way to learn it — perhaps by taking an herb or aromatherapy class.
  7. Make an herbal first aid kit.
  8. Organize local healers for emergency response in your community.
  9. With medicinal plants grown in your region, learn how to treat one condition that you and/or someone in your family struggles with.