I've missed Helen Branswell, who recently left The Canadian Press for a gig with Stat, the Boston Globe's new medical site. Here's her first Stat byline, shared with Eric Bloodman: Nobel winner: ‘Is there some way I can verify this?' Excerpt:
When biologist William Campbell answered the phone before dawn on Monday, he was startled to hear a reporter telling him he had just won the Nobel Prize. In his confusion, he ended the call abruptly.
A moment later, Campbell called the reporter back. “I said, ‘It’s not that I mistrust you, but is there some way that I can verify this?’” Campbell recounted in an interview with Stat at his home in a retirement community.
The reporter directed him to the Nobel website, where Campbell found his verification: He was a co-winner of the 2015 prize for physiology or medicine. Campbell, 85, and biochemist Satoshi Omura of Japan share half the prize for their work to develop ivermectin, a drug that combats parasites which cause two debilitating diseases, river blindness and lymphatic filariasis. In severe cases, the latter can develop into the condition elephantiasis, which causes swelling of the limbs.
The other half of the award was won by Chinese scientist Youyou Tu, who scoured ancient Chinese texts looking for a traditional remedy for malaria. She focused her efforts on a plant called sweet wormwood, or Artemisia annua. The result: the drug artemisinin, a first-line therapy and a lifesaver.
In both cases, the award honors work that was done decades ago. In the intervening time, the two drugs have benefited hundreds of millions of people.
“These three scientists have had a massive positive impact on global health. This was a great choice by the Nobel Committee,” said Dr. Christopher V. Plowe, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
In the case of ivermectin, the discovery is only half of an incredible story. When Campbell realized his team at Merck & Co., Inc. – his longtime employer – had a drug that could treat infections with debilitating parasites, he and others also quickly realized that the people who needed the drug could not afford to pay for it.
He and his boss talked to Dr. Roy Vagelos, then the CEO of Merck, who made the bold decision to donate the drug — as much as was needed for as long as was needed — to groups working to control river blindness. Later, the free supplies were extended to combat filariasis.
“It was a gutsy move. It’s a very difficult thing to give a drug away,” said Campbell.
He said at the time there was concern that other drug companies might stop working on therapies for diseases that afflict the world’s poor if they felt they, too, would be expected to give them away.
It did create a precedent, but not the one Merck feared, said Craig Withers, acting vice-president of health programs at the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which has been instrumental in the work to fight river blindness, formally called onchocerciasis, and filariasis.
In fact, Withers said, the Merck decision gave birth to the effort to combat what are known as neglected tropical diseases.