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The Nobel Discovery Protecting 300 Million People from the Risk of Blindness
Ōmura Satoshi’s Role in a Triumphant Public Health Campaign

Tsukasaki Asako [Profile]


Fighting Disease with Microbes

A microbe discovered by scientist Ōmura Satoshi in Japanese soil is helping to free 300 million people around the world from the risk of blindness. For this contribution to humankind, Ōmura was awarded one quarter of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Onchocerciasis, or river blindness, is a disease that is endemic in many parts of Africa. Reflecting on the people he met who have lost their vision through the disease, Ōmura showed his happiness that the substance he found and the drug derived from it is making such a difference, while modestly stating that the microbes did all the work.

Inspired by Fermentation

Ōmura was born in 1935 as the eldest son of a farming family in Nirasaki, Yamanashi Prefecture. His father agreed to his wish to attend college, and he learned more about chemistry at the University of Yamanashi. Following graduation, he taught at an evening high school while continuing his studies at the Graduate School of the Tokyo University of Science. He became absorbed with experiments in organic chemistry, receiving a master’s degree after five years and then became a research associate in fermentation production at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Yamanashi.

It was here that Ōmura awoke to the potential of microbes. Yamanashi Prefecture is home to many wineries, and wine-making is a major research subject at the University of Yamanashi. Impressed by how yeast can convert glucose into alcohol overnight through fermentation, Ōmura decided to do advanced research by combining the power of microbes with his knowledge of chemistry.

Wishing to devote himself to research, in 1965 Ōmura joined the Kitasato Institute, which was founded by Kitasato Shibasaburō, the father of bacteriology in Japan. He was hired as an assistant technician, a position usually assigned to college graduates. As he made clean copies of the papers written by the institute director, he built up specialist knowledge, and gained the confidence of his colleagues.

Working with Pharmaceutical Companies

In 1971, Ōmura became a visiting professor at Wesleyan University in the United States. He was invited to join the university by Max Tishler, president of the American Chemical Society and formerly the president of Merck Sharp and Dohme Research Laboratories. Here Ōmura was able to freely engage in research, and he developed friendships with leading researchers. He was, however, called back to Japan after 18 months in the United States. Research funding in Japan at that time was about one-twentieth of the level in the United States. Ōmura worked hard to raise research funds he could use after returning to Japan.

Ōmura took the approach of proposing joint research with pharmaceutical companies. The Kitasato Institute would investigate microbes and the substances they produce and when biologically active substances of interest were found through in vitro study, they would be patented and sent to a pharmaceutical company. The pharmaceutical company would perform animal testing and clinical trials. If the substance could be made into a drug and brought to market, the pharmaceutical company would pay a royalty to the institute.

This was a time when collaboration between industry and academia was viewed skeptically as a one-sided affair favoring industry. Ōmura argued, however, that finding useful drugs required collaboration with companies. Showing great foresight, he focused on developing drugs for animals rather than for people. He understood that his small group would have little chance competing against giant global corporations engaged in the heated search for human medicine. Ōmura succeeded in gaining funding from Merck, Pfizer, and other well-known pharmaceutical companies.

  • [2015.10.21]

Journalist. Has written prolifically, primarily in the areas of medical science, healthcare, and science, and technology, after working as a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun. Received an undergraduate degree in natural sciences from International Christian University, a master’s degree in systems management from Tsukuba University, and a master’s degree in medical administration from Tokyo Medical and Dental University.

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