Scientist makes strides to treat River blindness

Dr. William C. Campbell discussed the drug Ivermectin, which helps combat the River blindness epidemic. The 2015 winner of a Nobel Prize in the category of Physiology or Medicine spoke at the event presented by the Health Studies Institute in coordination with the global studies and health care policy programs on April 7.

By James Shepherd

Nobel Prize winner William C. Campbell visited Rider University to speak about the therapy he discovered that combats infections caused by roundworms. Specifically, he discussed the drug Ivermectin and how it combats Onchocerciasis, or, as it its more commonly known, River blindness. Campbell won a Nobel Prize in 2015 in the Physiology or Medicine category.

The root cause of River blindness is the bite of the Black Fly. “When it bites the person the infected larvae penetrate the bite wound and get under the skin before growing into adult worms,” Campbell said.” After the larvae mature, they begin to breed on their own. It is their progeny which migrate through the skin, some of which eventually end up in the eye.

A telltale sign of infection is what Campbell refers to as “a tennis ball full of spaghetti.” Small nodules appear on the skin of the infected, within which lie the baby worms which eventually migrate through the skin to various points in the body.

The therapy was eventually discovered through the efforts of research on a single mouse that had been exposed to the worms and larvae. “All of our microbial drugs have been discovered empirically,” Campbell said. “So in this case it was different because we tested substances in this new mouse [test], and the essence of the assay was that we gave a mouse an unknown amount of an unknown substance that might not be there.”

The drug that had originally been found had been titled Avermectin but was later improved by chemists. “But it is in my experience that our chemistry friends seem to believe that no matter how good something is, the chemists will make it better.” Avermectin was improved by chemists by hydrogenating it, therefore improving its potency and resulted in the name change to Ivermectin.

Campbell brought the drug to the attention of the board of the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research to use the drug on human subjects instead of animals. Early community testing took place in West Africa and all results pointed towards a success of the drug, which in its final form killed the larvae in the skin.

When it came to the debate of how to distribute the drug, the Merck Institute decided to give the drug away for free to those who needed it for as long as they needed it in a program they called the MDP (Mectizan Donation Program.)

The drug is administered yearly in pill form.

Since 2010, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala River blindness has been eliminated. Campbell believes that by 2025, River Blindness will be eliminated in Brazil and Venezuela.

Campbell was gifted a crystal vase by Rider University as a token of gratitude.

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