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Three New Nobel Laureates in Medicine

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to three researchers for their work developing therapies that treat parasitic disease, the New York Times reports.

Kitasato University's Satoshi Omura and Drew University's William Campbell won for developing avermectin, whose derivative ivermectin has nearly eliminated river blindness and greatly reduced the incidence of filariasis, the Times says.

Omura, a microbiologist, tested soil samples for Streptomyces, which Reuters notes naturally produces chemicals that are good at killing parasites. He homed in on some promising strains, including S. avermitilis, which produces avermectin, the Times adds. Campbell, then at the Merck Institute, expanded on Omura's work to purify avermectin and modified it to be the more effective ivermectin.

"I really wonder if I deserve this," Omura tells Reuters. "I have done all my work depending on microbes and learning from them, so I think the microbes might almost deserve it more than I do."

Omura and Campbell share the award with Youyou Tu from the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, who discovered artemisinin, a drug that has greatly reduced the malaria death rate. Tu drew upon traditional Chinese medicine in her search for a better malaria treatment as the effectiveness of chloroquine and quinine was waning, Reuters says. She noted that an extract from the Artemisia herb was inconsistently effective, and by returning to ancient Chinese writings, she uncovered a recipe from 350 AD that led her to isolate artemisinin.

"These two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually," the Nobel committee says in a statement. "The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable."

Parasitic worms affect about a third of the world's population and that malaria kills 450,000 people a year, mostly children, the Times adds.

Reuters notes that Tu is China's first Nobel laureate.