Irish scientist William C. Campbell receives Nobel Prize
Published 05/10/2015 | 11:39
An Irish-born scientist who shared this year's Nobel Prize in medicine has been credited with helping to secure free drugs to cure river blindness across Africa.
William C Campbell, originally from Ramelton in Co Donegal, who describes parasites as "beautiful and brilliant", was honoured for his work to fight roundworm, sharing it with Japanese scientist Satoshi Omura and Youyou Tu - the first ever Chinese medicine laureate.
Mr Campbell and Mr Omura were cited for discovering avermectin, derivatives of which have helped lower the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, two diseases caused by parasitic worms that affect millions of people in Africa and Asia.
Leo Varadkar, Ireland's Health Minister, described the achievement as a great day for Irish science.
"It's a magnificent achievement for him and his colleagues. Prof Campbell's work on developing the drug avermectin, which combats the roundworm parasite and other organisms, is already bringing benefits to people across the planet," the minister said.
Mr Campbell, 85, is a research fellow in the Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti at Drew University, New Jersey.
His alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, said his discoveries have radically lowered the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis and helped treat other parasitic diseases.
Patrick Prendergast, the university's provost, said: "Professor Campbell was centrally involved in developing the cure against river blindness.
"In 1987 he spearheaded the decision by Merck to distribute that cure free to millions of people in what became one of the first and foremost examples of a public/private partnership in international health. Annually 25 million people are treated under this scheme preventing new cases of river blindness."
River blindness is an eye and skin disease caused by a parasite spread by black flies that ultimately leads to blindness as worms live just beneath the skin and make their way to the sufferer's eyes.
About 90% of the disease occurs in Africa, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and it is also prevalent in parts of Central and South America.
Lymphatic filariasis can lead to swelling of the limbs and genitals, called elephantiasis, and it is primarily a threat in Africa and Asia. The WHO says 120 million people are infected with the disease, with about 40 million disfigured and incapacitated.
The bioactive agent avermectin, was chemically modified to a more effective compound called ivermectin and marketed as a drug by pharmaceutical giant Merck (Merck Sharpe and Dohme).
Drew University noted how Campbell facilitated an international collaboration between the pharma company, the World Health Organisation and NGOs to distribute the drug for free.
"It was a great team effort by the people at Merck and Company," Mr Campbell said.
About 70 million treatments are given out every year, significantly reducing the spread of the parasite.
Mr Campbell graduated with first class honours in zoology from Trinity College in 1952. He went on to receive a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1957, following which he worked with the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research until 1990.
He is the third Trinity graduate to have been awarded a Nobel Prize, joining physicist E.T.S. Walton who won the Nobel Prize for splitting the atom, and Samuel Beckett for his contribution to literature.
MSD (Merck Sharp and Dohme) said Campbell worked at the company's research laboratories in Rahway, New Jersey for 33 years until 1990.
His research led to the Mectizan drug being used which was offered free to anyone who needed for as long as was needed to eradicate the specific diseases.
"To date MSD is still building on the great work of Professor Campbell by supporting the Mectizan Donation programme which, after 27 years, is still the longest-running disease-specific drug donation programme and public-private partnership of its kind," MSD said.