Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Africa Analysis: Nobel aspirations could benefit Africa

    Linda Nordling

    19/10/15

Speed read

  • Three scientists win Nobel Prize for helping tackle tropical diseases

  • The award is good news for R&D into neglected diseases and traditional medicine

  • The award shows that saving lives, and not just having many citations, is key

One swallow may not make a summer, but the awarding of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to the discoverers of treatments for malaria and roundworm parasites is welcome news for scientists in developing countries.
 
A fortnight ago (5 October), the Nobel Committee in Sweden announced that the 8 million Swedish kronor (about US$977,000) prize would be split two ways. The first half goes to William Campbell, an Irishman working in the United States, and Satoshi Omura from Japan for their discovery of avermectin, a treatment derived from soil-dwelling bacteria that is effective against parasitic diseases such as elephantiasis and river blindness.
 
The second half of the prize goes in its entirety to Youyou Tu from China for her work that led to the development of artemisinin-based malaria treatments.
 
Tu’s story is remarkable. In the late 1960s, as China’s cultural revolution was holding sway, efforts to eradicate malaria were failing. It was against this background that Tu began to screen traditional Chinese herbal medicines for antimalarial properties.

“To Africans working on tropical health problems, this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is a sign of hope.”

Linda Nordling

 
In a move that would raise some eyebrows today, Tu and her colleagues conducted the first-in-human safety testing of artemisinin, which is extracted from the plant Artemisia annua or sweet wormwood, on themselves before moving to human clinical trials.
 
They were also helped along by clues in ancient Chinese medical texts, one such key insight being that the compound must not be heated or it would lose its antimalarial properties.
 
Good news for NTDs
 
To Africans working on tropical health problems, this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is a sign of hope.
 
Elephantiasis and river blindness are listed on the World Health Organisation’s list of ‘neglected tropical diseases (NTDs)’, so called because they receive proportionally less funding and attention than other health challenges such as HIV or cancer.
 
The reason they have been neglected is, in part, because their victims tend to reside in poor, rural parts of the world, and thus pose little interest for pharmaceutical developers who want to cater to more lucrative markets.
 
For example, according to the WHO, elephantiasis — also called lymphatic filariasis — is caused by roundworms, with 1.23 billion people worldwide living in areas where they could get the disease. Of the ten countries that together constitute 80 per cent of the population at risk, four are in Sub-Saharan Africa: Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Tanzania. [1]
 
However, in recent years there has been an upswing in attention and even funding for NTDs, and some of it has come to Africa.
 
For example, in April 2014 Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University was awarded money by a World Bank scheme to host a regional centre of excellence in neglected tropical diseases and forensic biology [2]. And the University of Buea in Cameroon hosts a centre of excellence for drug research on river blindness, funded through the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics Innovation.
 
For scientists working in these institutions and for the others working on neglected diseases in Africa, there is thus hope that their work — although considered far from cutting-edge in terms of the journals it appears in, or the citations they attract — nevertheless could one day win them the highest accolade in science.
 
And for traditional medicine
 
The recognition of Yu’s discovery of artemisinin also offers some hope for Africans investigating the properties of indigenous medicinal compounds.
 
A lot has been written about the knowledge embedded in African traditional medicine, and its ability to furnish us with new candidates for drugs and treatments.

“In subtle ways, this year’s Nobel Prize shows that you don’t need to have the most scientific citations, nor necessarily write in English, to be a winner.”

Linda Nordling

 
However, the field is often not viewed as cutting-edge research. In South Africa, some prominent scientists say that the pressure driving the field is political, not scientific.
 
I was once told by a senior (white) South African chemist that sifting through traditional medicine for new drug candidates was “something for students to do, I guess” but unlikely, in his view, to yield exciting results.
 
A subtle shift
 
In subtle ways, this year’s Nobel Prize shows that you don’t need to have the most scientific citations, nor necessarily write in English, to be a winner.
 
It also flies in the face of attempts to predict possible Nobel laureates based on citation scores in science journals.
 
This year, the three discoveries tipped by Thomson Reuters for the medicine prize were completely off the mark. They were all in basic science: one on gut microbiology, another on folding proteins, and a third on immunology of T-cells. [4] The suggested winners were also all male.
 
That is the beauty of the Nobel Prizes. They are not tied to lifeless metrics. Their aim, as Alfred Nobel himself stated in his last will and testament, are quite simply to reward those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. [5]
 
By saving many lives and improving countless others, the discoveries of Campbell, Omura and Tu fit the bill. And by inspiring colleagues around the world and especially in Africa they could, in turn, save many more.
 
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.
 
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.