The soil sample from an Izu golf course that changed the world

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In October 2021, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that Dr Syukuro Manabe was one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his “revolutionary contributions” to understanding climate change.

Whether or not the many climate models of future weather developed by climatologists demonstrate their usefulness will remain unknown until the future arrives. But looking to the future is Dr Manabe’s job.

Shortly after learning he had won the Nobel Prize, Dr Manabe expressed concern that Japan was experiencing a brain drain that could ultimately cause the country to lose its scientific competitiveness, and therefore its economic advantage. compared to countries like China. The scientist has direct experience with this matter, as he became a naturalized US citizen and is currently a faculty member at Princeton University in America.

However, not all Japanese scientists who leave Japan do so forever.

A scientist – let’s just call him Satoshi for now – has been recalled from the United States to Japan to run a laboratory at a private Japanese medical institution in Tokyo. There, he finally discovered a therapeutic substance produced by soil bacteria that was later found to be unobtainable elsewhere in the world, and which has saved the lives of millions of people.

Beginning of the life of a country scientist

Satoshi, the eldest son of a farming family in Nirasaki, Yamanashi Prefecture, was born in 1935. In Yamanashi’s hometown farm, Satoshi developed a “deep respect for nature and its role as a source. main of most of the materials we need to survive. . ”

Nobel laureate Satoshi Omura

Her father was a “leading member of the village”. Her mother was a schoolteacher. Because his parents worked during the day, Satoshi spent much of his time with his grandmother, who encouraged him to work for others and find personal satisfaction.

Satoshi balanced his studies with his love of cross-country skiing. He studied hard and eventually graduated from college, and later earned not one, but two doctorates – one in pharmaceutical sciences and, two years later, another in chemistry.

He then worked as an associate researcher at Yamanashi University, where he studied fermentation and marveled at how yeast could turn sugar into wine faster than chemists.

After his stint at Yamanashi University, Satoshi joined the Kitasato Institute, which focuses on developing natural therapies and producing treatments for diseases that were previously believed to be incurable. It will be its scientific focus until today ー unless there is a break.

“Coming from a farming family through which I developed a deep respect for nature and its role as the primary source of most of the materials we need to survive,” says the scientist, “[at the Kitasato Institute] I chose to focus on soil microorganisms.

Satoshi noted that “time, patience, trial and error are all essential ingredients” in any process to discover therapeutic molecules from soil bacteria. One gram of soil can contain up to a million bacteria.

To increase success in finding the right molecules, Satoshi has developed several new screening methods. These led to the discovery of molecules that were later developed into clinically useful drugs, including antimicrobial and anticancer drugs.

Vital treatments in unexpected places

In 1971, Satoshi traveled to the United States for a three-year sabbatical. He met many influential American scientists, including Dr Max Tishler, former director of Merck Research Laboratories, a division of the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.

Golf course in Kawana on the Izu Peninsula.

Satoshi was recalled to the Kitasato Institute before the end of his sabbatical. But before leaving the United States, he visited the National Institutes of Health and several large pharmaceutical companies to secure funds to continue his research into new natural therapies. He obtained funding and entered into a collaboration agreement with Merck in 1973.

Back in Japan, Satoshi and his team discovered new molecules from new microorganisms. Satoshi’s team sent promising samples to Merck, which tested the molecules in animal disease models and attempted to improve efficacy and safety by modifying the molecule itself.

In 1974, Merck received a very interesting new molecule – later fully identified in 1975. The molecule and its bacteria had been found in an unusual location: the ground near a golf course in Kawana, on the east coast of Kenya. Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture. .

Satoshi is a golfer and says he carries sample bags with him wherever he goes, always looking for new sources of potentially life-saving drugs.

The Izu compound has been shown to be very effective against a range of parasites. As the compound was particularly useful in the treatment of animals, Merck made modifications to the original molecule and sold the compound as a veterinary pest control drug in 1981, achieving over $ 1 billion in sales per year for the next 25 years.

From Izu to Africa

Onchocerciasis, or “river blindness”, and lymphatic filariasis, or “elephantiasis”, are diseases caused by parasitic infections. In the mid-1970s, onchocerciasis affected an estimated 18 million people, mostly Africans.

The impact of river blindness Photo: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine

The parasitic worm that causes this disease is transmitted to humans by a biting fly. The adult female worm enters the blood of the fly and lays hundreds of larvae. The larvae migrate to the skin where they cause itching and skin disease. The larvae can also enter the eyes, which can lead to vision loss. In the past, the only mitigation strategy was frequent spraying of aerial insecticides.

Merck tested its new pest control drug on patients and found a significant reduction in the number of larvae, which in turn helped prevent skin disease and blindness. Since the drug only killed the larvae and not the adult parasite, it had to be taken once a year, until the adult worms eventually died.

The molecule discovered by Satoshi and his team, and developed by Merck, has since helped many people who otherwise would have suffered from parasitic diseases.

Relief for the tropics

A parasitic worm carried by mosquitoes found in the tropics and subtropics of the world causes lymphatic filariasis. This disease is characterized by fever and painful swelling of the legs (elephantiasis) and, in men, of the genitals. It is estimated that 120 million people are infected worldwide.

2015 Nobel Laureate (Physiology or Medicine) Satoshi Omura

As with river blindness, however, after a single dose of veterinary medicine from Merck, patients showed almost complete elimination of the parasitic worms that cause lymphatic filariasis.

As part of a typical antibiotic regimen, patients should take approximately 1000 mg of medication per day. With the drug Merck, however, patients only take 12 mg once a year, dramatically reducing compliance and costs.

After the completion of clinical field studies in 1987, the French Directorate of Pharmacy and Medicines approved Merck’s drug for human use.

Merck pledged to give the drug to those in need, for as long as needed, free of charge. It is estimated that around 300 million people take Merck’s medicine each year. Of these, Merck provides the drug free of charge to more than 250 million people.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also finally approved Merck’s drug in 1996 for parasitic infections in humans. The drug is now included in the World Health Organization’s “Essential Medicines List”.

Treatment hampered by ideology

Satoshi, who discovered the molecule that led to the treatment that has helped hundreds of millions of people around the world, recently speculated that the drug Merck could be used for a number of other indications beyond parasitic infections.

However, on August 21, 2021, amid a war of words over the potential use of the drug Merck as a treatment for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the FDA scorned the idea. The organization said in a Tweet: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, all of you. Stop that.

Has anyone forgotten that the FDA approved Merck’s “veterinary drug” for human use 15 years earlier?

This narrow-minded affront to a great discovery and a great scientist must not go unanswered. The Japanese people should demand an apology for this disrespectful Tweet about a drug that is changing the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world as nothing more than medicine for farm animals.

Nobel laureate Satoshi Omura.

It should be clear by now that the scientist is none other than Satoshi Omura, and the miracle cure he helped discover and develop is none other than Ivermectin.

William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015, “For their discoveries concerning a new therapy against infections caused by roundworms”.

Satoshi’s golf course soil sample taken from Izu contained unique bacteria that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The bacteria produced avermectins, from which the antiparasitic drug Ivermectin (marketed as Stromecto) was developed.

Indeed, ivermectin has been so successful in treating parasitic diseases, noted the Nobel Prize’s announcement, that “these diseases are on the verge of being eradicated, which would be a major achievement in the medical history of humanity “.

Author: Dr Aldric Hama



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