William C Campbell warns of decline in scientific research

Irish-born Nobel Prize laureate stresses importance of risk-taking and empirical research

Irish-born Nobel Prize laureate William C. Campbell has warned of the great cost of a decline in the kind of scientific research that lead to him beating the parasitic infection that leads to river blindness

Irish-born Nobel Prize laureate William C. Campbell has warned of the great cost of a decline in the kind of scientific research that lead to him beating the parasitic infection that leads to river blindness

 

Irish-born Nobel Prize laureate William C. Campbell has warned of the great cost of a decline in the kind of scientific research that lead to him beating the parasitic infection that leads to river blindness.

Dr Campbell, born in 1930 in Derry and raised in Donegal, was greeted with a standing ovation on Monday in Stockholm for his Nobel lecture on the discovery of the drug ivermectin. This drug, the Nobel Prize committee said on Monday, had “lead to unmatched advances in human health”.

Ahead of Thursday’s award ceremony, Dr Campbell said he was “grateful and honoured beyond imagination” for being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 with fellow researchers Satoshi Å‘mura and Youyou Tu.

But, in an era where pharmaceutical takeovers are more likely to make the news than new drugs, the Irish-born scientist said risk-taking and empirical research were essential to repeat the breakthroughs achieved by his team’s observational approach of trial and error screening.

“In recent decades that screening approach has been beaten into disrepute and ... been abandoned,” he said. “And when it is abandoned we cannot know what price has been paid in non-discovery.”

The gains made by ivermectin were staggering, the Nobel Prize committee said, allowing a “fundamental change” in the fight against parasitic diseases that afflict more than half of the world’s population.

Of particular benefit has been ivermectin’s use in the treatment of river blindness. which affects 25 million people worldwide and has left 800,000 with impaired vision or totally blind.

The fight-back against river blindness had “lead to immeasurable improvement in human health and well-being”, according to the Karolinska Institutet, which awards the science prize.

Dr Campbell studied in Belfast and at Trinity College Dublin before taking a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It was at the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research where he was involved in the development of ivermectin.

In his lecture Dr Campbell recalled starting the research on May 9, 1975, when a single mouse in a mouse-box was infected with parasitic worms - not enough to cause illness - and then fed a special food for a week to which a fermented substance had been added.

“When I say a single mouse I do not mean that the mouse was unmarried,” he joked. “I mean only that that special diet had been tested in only one mouse, usually things are tested in groups of mice.”

Eventually the mouse had no trace of worms, thanks, they discovered, to the food additive containing a bacterium discovered by Dr Satoshi Å‘mura. Their science had been simple and effective, he said, despite its complex and unorthodox elements.

“You line up a series of infected mice, you treat each mouse with unknown amount of an unknown substance that might not be there and then you check to see if it worked,” said Dr Campbell. “On the face of it it seems to fly in the face of what we are taught about science - as well-regulated system and emphasis on measurements. But we need to understand that this, too, is well regulated science.”

In his lecture Dr Campbell showed a statue illustrating a sight he hoped his work would end: sightless adults clinging to a stick as they are lead by a sighted child.

The scientist said he had greeted news of his win with mixed emotions : gratitude that his research had been honoured and sadness that all those involved in the research could not be named individually.

He also paid tribute to his employer, Merck, for giving away ivermectin for treatment of river blindness.