Meet Ireland’s new Nobel Laureate, William C Campbell

This week, ping-pong playing, Donegal-born, 85-year-old William C Campbell became the second Irish scientist to win a Nobel. Here, he talks God, Ireland, medicine and happiness

 William C Campbell  at his home after the announcement that he won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine, in  Massachusetts. Photograph:  EPA/CJ Gunther

William C Campbell at his home after the announcement that he won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine, in Massachusetts. Photograph: EPA/CJ Gunther

 

This week William C Campbell won the Nobel Prize in Medicine – only the second Irish scientist to win a Nobel Prize, after Ernest Walton in 1951. The Donegal man – he is from Ramelton – was awarded a quarter of the prize for his work, alongside the Japanese scientist Satoshi Omura, in discovering avermectins, which kill infection-causing parasitic roundworms.

In 1987, nine years after Prof Campbell first floated the idea, his employer, Merck Research Laboratories, announced that it would distribute ivermectin, its modified version of avermectin, without charge wherever it was needed. That altruism has hugely helped to combat onchocerciasis – aka river blindness – lymphatic filariasis and other parasitic diseases in Africa, Latin America and Yemen. According to the World Health Organisation, 98 million people in 31 African countries receive annual treatment through the programme. Since 2009 the WHO’s focus on river blindness has shifted from treatment to elimination.

On the phone from Massachusetts, Campbell’s distinctive Donegal-Boston brogue is marked by a certain hoarseness after a busy week.

ON LIFE AFTER THE NOBEL PRIZE
‘We must maintain our values’

“It has already affected it, and will continue to. I’ve been a bit scrambled the last few days. But you can’t let your fundamental values be changed because of this prize. You can’t let your life be altered too much. It’s going to be difficult to do, but we must be sure that we maintain our values and commitments. We’re due to go to a state hundreds of miles away next week, but we’re going to go. The same with existing dinner commitments close at hand: we have not changed any of them.”

ON MAKING AVERMECTIN FREE
‘It was the right thing to do’

“I don’t know how instrumental I was, and there is no way, I think, of knowing,” he says. “Certainly, I was all for it. I didn’t have to make the ultimate decision. The chairman, Roy [Vagelos], had to make that decision, a very tough decision.

“As a commercial entity it is quite remarkable. Sometimes people say in print that, ‘Oh, that was just done to improve the morale of the employees.’ I think that is nonsense, because if the employees thought this was being done to improve our morale, it would not have improved our morale, believe me.

“I think it was done because it was the right thing to do, and I think the employees applauded it, because they thought it was the right thing to do.”

ON GROWING UP IN IRELAND
‘I had wonderful parents’

“Most of us are products of our nurture, and I was blessed with a positive nurturer in Ramelton, both in my home life and in my education. There’s always been this great compulsion to try to do things, and to try to do different things.

“I had wonderful, totally dedicated parents, who filled me with great, old-time values. My siblings and I had a tutor from the age of six, a woman professional teacher, who instilled a love of learning.

“And at Trinity College I had Desmond Smyth, my professor, and he changed my life by developing my interest in this particular field – parasitic worms. He encouraged me, and he arranged things so I could come over and do graduate work in America [in 1952].

“And I was in touch with him for the rest of my life, and I was and am extremely grateful to him.”

ON HIS DREAM
‘To cure malaria’

“I don’t have to even think about it: it would be to cure malaria. It’s still an enormous problem. Similarly with the worm infections: they’re not as common or as severe, but it’s still a problem on a large scale. Scale matters.

“The greatest challenge for science is to think globally, think simply and act accordingly. It would be disastrous to neglect the diseases of the developing world. One part of the world affects another part. We have a moral obligation to look after each other, but we’re also naturally obligated to look after our own needs. It has to be both.

“Rich countries could always do more, but whether it’s reasonable to expect them to do more is another question, and maybe a more important one. Everyone can’t do everything for everybody else.”

ON GOD
‘I pray every night of my life’

“I believe in God. I pray every single night of my life, but I have a very complicated sense of religion, and I am pretty fuzzy in that segment of my life.

“My faith, and that of millions of others, has evolved, if that is the right word, as civilisation has evolved. Evolved but not been abandoned. Religion and science can coexist. At least, that had better be true. There are certain intangibles.

“I know about these militant atheists, and I think they make very good arguments, but there is a certain level at which argumentation doesn’t come into it. Believing in something that you know exists isn’t a matter of faith; it doesn’t require faith.

“Gabriel Rossetti, the English poet, felt sorry for atheists because they didn’t have anybody to feel grateful to. That always stuck with me, because we have so much to be grateful for. I believe, and I believe in prayer.”

ON IRELAND TODAY
‘What I encounter is very positive’

“I see a lot of buildings that were not there when I left. A lot of people are doing very well – when I was young growing up in Donegal

there were a lot of people not doing so well. And that’s something that has changed over many years. It’s a very wonderful feeling to come back and see that. It’s very positive.

“The scientific work being done at Irish universities I know is of a very high calibre, and, from talking to people, I know that the educational level is very good. So I feel it is progressing tremendously well.

“What I encounter is very positive, but I encounter a very small, select number of people when I visit. I’m not sure what the public attitude is towards science.”

ON HAPPINESS
‘To be meaningful, work has to be hard’

“I think you need to work to ensure that life has some joy now, even if it’s difficult. Gratitude is a totally pervasive thing [for me]. I have so much to be grateful for.

“Doing small creative acts can be very important – along with meaningful work. Yet, to be meaningful, work has to be hard work. So many people think it would be nice to have a nice, cushy job. If it’s a really cushy job it’s not really work.

“At the same time I’ve learned that one should not engage in oppressive work on the grounds that, when it’s all accomplished, then you’ll start living properly. Some people have this idea that when you get through this miserable period, then you’ll start living, then you’ll start having fun.

“There’s no need to be berating yourself and banging your head as you struggle through, on the grounds that it will one day become better.”

ON BEING ACTIVE AT 85
‘I play ping-pong three times a week’

“Sometimes I do feel tired, believe me, but mostly I don’t. I should be playing ping-pong right now, in fact. I play that three times a week, in the afternoons. So I hope you know that you’re intruding on my ping-pong.

“I kayak in the morning when it’s serene and quiet on the lake. I like to go out in the morning when there’s no one around, and the lake is peaceful and quiet. I’m still active.

“I’m a very happy man. I have a wonderful wife and wonderful children, and I have lots of interests. As a scientist you have to allow time for things other than science. I have other hobbies and things that I sometimes struggle to find time to keep doing. Like painting and writing poetry.

“There are so many things that can be done. I think one should look for even small challenges, for example to be in some small way creative. I mean, I think if you read poetry you should try to write poetry.”

ON EDUCATION
‘I was taught via rote learning’

“I am biased on this. I’m no educational expert, but I was taught via rote learning, and learned to recite poetry with my tutor, Ms Martin. Parts have never left me.

“I learned things by heart in college too. In Trinity in those days the exams came at the end of vacation, so I had to do a great deal of self-learning, and self-reinforcing of what you learned, and this was by memorisation.

“That’s my personal experience: it has added a richness. Now, maybe other people can learn other ways. Educational experts might know better.”

ON PROFESSIONAL ACHIEVEMENTS
‘Avermectin wasn’t the most fun’

“Certainly the work with avermectin has had the greatest impact. On the other hand, as a scientist who has done lots of work in a lab, it wasn’t the most fun, or even the most satisfying, experimentation.

“I did work on freezing parasitic worms. I just had a serious passion to put the worms in a deep freeze and bring them back, and see that they were still effective and perfectly normal. I was very, very lucky to find a way to do that. It was very, very satisfying.

“Often, side projects turn out to be scientifically the most fun. The worm experiment turned out to be very useful, and helped those working on parasitic disease. But it was entirely incidental. I did it because I had a great desire to do it. It was the little things I did that were, in a sense, more personally satisfying, because more exciting.”

ON YOUNG AND OLD SCIENTISTS
‘When you’re young, your brain is more agile’

“One does a different type of science when you’re young. When you’re older

you have more perspective, but when you’re young your brain is more agile, when you need it. When you’re older you don’t.

“I not only don’t do bench research, but I know that I should not do bench research. I just don’t have the concentration. I have a lot of vials and dishes in the lab, and the danger of mixing them up is just vastly greater than when you’re younger. I’d be a liability in the lab right now.”

 

 


Panel
MEDAL WINNERS

Dick Ahlstrom, Science Editor, on this week’s Nobel scientists

Physiology or Medicine
William Campbell shared his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with two other scientists who have also changed – and are still changing – the lives of millions of people around the world, by providing powerful treatments for severe medical conditions caused by parasites.
The Japanese microbiologist Satoshi Omura, an emeritus professor at Kitasato University, went into the field to search for soil bacteria known to have good antibacterial activity.
Campbell, who is an emeritus research fellow at Drew University, in New Jersey, acquired Omura’s cultures and found that a substance from one of them was remarkably effective against parasites occurring in farm animals.
The bioactive agent was purified and named avermectin, then later modified and called ivermectin. The drug knocked out parasites in animals; when tested on humans it had the same powerful effect on the parasite larvae linked to river blindness and to elephantiasis.
The two won a quarter each of the prize for their discoveries. The Chinese researcher Youyou Tu, chief professor at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, wins the other half of the prize after turning to traditional herbal medicine in her search for a viable treatment against malaria.
She carried out a large-scale screening of animals infected with the disease and found an extract from the ‘Artemisia annua’ plant, aka sweet wormwood, that held promise. Once she overcame difficulties in isolating the substance, later called artemisinin, it proved highly effective against the malaria parasite in animals and humans.

Chemistry
The discovery of a toolbox that cells use to repair DNA captured the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The scientists from Sweden, the US and Turkey who shared the prize helped explain how our bodies protect us from mutations, including cancer, by mending errors that arise in our genetic blueprint.
Our DNA is constantly under assault, and its ladder-like steps can be broken by UV radiation from the sun, by free radicals, by cancer-causing agents and even by bad copying as cells divide. How this happens remained a mystery for some time after the discovery, in 1953, of DNA’s shape; the three prize winners were pioneers in this field.
Tomas Lindahl from Stockholm, who is emeritus director of Cancer Research UK at Clare Hall Laboratory in England, found one of the key repair mechanisms when studying why DNA didn’t just collapse under its own complexity.
Paul Modrich from the US, a professor of biochemistry at Duke University school of medicine, in North Carolina, showed how cells manage to correct DNA errors that occur when replicated during cell division in a process known as mismatch repair.
Aziz Sancar, originally from Turkey and now a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of North Carolina school of medicine, revealed another repair mechanism related to DNA damage caused by UV radiation, then found another that corrects defects caused by mutagenic substances.

Physics
Uncovering aspects of the very secret life of the neutrino won the Nobel Prize in Physics for researchers in Japan and Canada. The scientists discovered that neutrinos can have at least three identities and can switch readily from one to another.
Neutrinos are fundamental particles but are notoriously difficult to study. Trillions of them pass through us every day, streaming in from the sun and from deep space after crashing into our atmosphere, yet we have no knowledge of their passing, as they barely interact with ordinary matter.
Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald changed all that as they pursued their research, Kajita at the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector, near the city of Hida, and McDonald at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, in Ontario.
The Japanese scientist, who is director of the institute for cosmic ray research and professor at the University of Tokyo, found that neutrinos switch between two identities;
McDonald, who is a professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Ontario, and his team revealed that neutrinos from the sun could switch to a third identity. These findings proved very important because they showed that these fast-moving particles were not massless.
Scientists believed this to be the case, but the books had to be rewritten to accommodate the pair’s findings, along with our assumptions about the fundamental constituents of the universe.

DICK AHLSTROM
Science Editor