Scientists from China, Japan, and the USA shared this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine for discoveries made in the 1970s. China’s Youyou Tu received half of the 8 million Swedish kronor (about $960,000) prize for her breakthrough in Malaria treatment, while Japan’s Satoshi Ōmura split the other half with Irish-American scientist William Campbell for their joint discovery of Avermectin, a compound effective in fighting River Blindness and several other parasitic diseases. These discoveries impact an estimated 3.4 billion people around the world, mostly in developing countries, who are at risk of contracting parasitic illnesses.
The process of transforming bacterial cultures into life-saving medication depended on collaboration between Japanese and American research teams, led by Satoshi Ōmura and William Campbell. Ōmura, a microbiologist working in Tokyo, isolated avermectin in soil samples from a local golf course. These samples were passed along to Campbell, then a scientist at American pharmaceutical company Merck. Campbell and his team used Ōmura’s culture to derive the veterinary drug Ivermectin, which successfully targeted roundworms. In 1978, Campbell proposed adopting the drug for human use, in order to fight the parasitic diseases that had long ravaged developing countries in tropical regions. Avermectin’s discovery in Tokyo and subsequent development into Ivermectin in New Jersey led to the near eradication of several debilitating parasitic diseases.
The United States and Japan have a robust history of medical cooperation. The White House cites collaboration on advanced technology, including health research and development as a key objective of US-Japan bilateral cooperation. Japanese firms and agencies have also become more involved with global efforts to eradicate tropical disease in the developing world, partnering with the Gates Foundation on their Grand Challenge program. This type of collaboration dates back at least fifty years to a joint communique issued by President Lyndon Johnson and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato declaring mutual concern for the health of Asian peoples and establishing the US-Japan Cooperative Medical Science Program, a focus of which was parasitic disease. Cooperation in this area continues, even decades after the work was conducted that resulted in the awarding of the Nobel Prize.
Anna Scott Bell is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and an MA Candidate in Asian Studies at Georgetown University.
Peter Valente is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a graduate student in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs at American University.