National / Science & Health

Omura stunned by unexpected Nobel win

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

News that scientist Satoshi Omura had won the Nobel Prize came so unexpectedly that many people in Japan, including the winner himself, were stunned by the honor — but delighted as well.

“I was planning to go back home at around 4:30 p.m.,” Omura, an 80-year-old professor emeritus at Kitasato University in Tokyo, said at a news conference Monday night to announce that he had been named as one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. “But my secretary wouldn’t let me go home, just telling me to wait and wait. Then, to my surprise, there came a phone call from Sweden.”

Omura shared the award with Irish-born William C. Campbell, an 85-year-old research fellow emeritus at Drew University in New Jersey, for discovering the new drug avermectin, derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filiarisis, commonly known as elephantiasis.

The medicine is believed to have helped about 300 million people worldwide combat parasitic diseases annually.

“My job is just receiving the power of microbes, and I have been doing so by studying what microbes were doing,” Omura said. “I don’t think I did a noble job. I was constantly thinking how I could do just a tiny bit for others.”

In a unique career arc for an academic, Omura initially worked as a science and physical education teacher at an industrial high school after graduating from Yamanashi University with a bachelor’s degree in 1958.

But, motivated by his students, he later earned doctoral degrees in pharmacy from the University of Tokyo in 1968 and in chemistry from the Tokyo University of Science in 1970.

Having worked as a researcher for the Kitasato Institute since 1965, Omura has devoted his career to biochemical research by extracting microbes from soil samples he collected from a golf course in Shizuoka Prefecture, where he found a type of bacteria that later became the source of avermectin.

He has been honored with numerous awards, including a Person of Cultural Merit in 2012 and a Canada Gairdner Global Health Award in 2014.

News about Japan’s 23rd Nobel Prize winner — the third in medicine after Shinya Yamanaka, who discovered induced pluripotent stem cells, better known as iPS cells, in 2012 —delighted people across the country, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who called to congratulate Omura in the middle of Monday’s news conference.

“As a result of Mr. Omura’s constant passion and efforts, hundreds of millions of people’s lives have been saved from infectious diseases,” Abe told reporters. “I, myself, feel really proud of him as a fellow Japanese.”

Education minister Hakubun Shimomura celebrated the news by issuing a statement of congratulations Monday night.

“The news about Omura receiving the award proves the high standard of our nation’s scholastic research to the world, and at the same time gives great pride and encouragement to all citizens,” it read.

Omura’s 42-year-old daughter, Ikuyo, said her father sounded full of joy when he phoned her with the news shortly after 6 p.m.

“But I believe my mother would be the happiest one (to hear the news). I wish she could witness his proud moment,” she said, speaking of Omura’s deceased wife, Fumiko.

Born in Nirasaki, Yamanashi Prefecture, in 1935, Omura is a dedicated golfer and cross-country skier. He is also an art lover who reportedly donated over ¥500 million worth of artworks and ¥200 million for construction costs to establish a museum in his hometown.

“I believe good art is basically not for someone to enjoy individually, but something that should be shared by all people as a collective property,” Omura is quoted on the museum’s website as saying. “If not for art, my life would have been a boring one. Even when I was struggling or my soul was wandering around, I could stick to myself thanks to art.”

Omura and Campbell were honored with another medical scientist, Tu Youyou, a Chinese researcher who discovered artemisinin, a drug that has contributed to significantly reducing the mortality rate for malaria. Tu will receive half of the 8 million Swedish kronor (about $960,000) in award money, while Omura and Campbell will split the remainder.

Information from Kyodo added