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Nematode © Christian SLAGMULDER

Anti-parasitic drugs: humans and animals united in the same fight

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 honours antiparasitic drugs as INRA continues working on their long-term use in animals

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 honours an approach to developing antiparasitic drugs based on natural substances found in bacteria and plants in the 1970s. As part of its public service mission, INRA has made significant contributions over the past thirty years alongside its research partners and the pharmaceutical industry to guide the responsible use of these medicines.

By Julie Cheriguene, translated by Teri Jones-Villeneuve
Updated on 06/19/2017
Published on 10/21/2015

Three scientists whose research centred on parasitic diseases received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015. Work begun in the 1960s by Chinese scientist Youyou Tu led to the discovery of artemisinin, a plant-based substance used to treat malaria. William Campbell (Ireland) and Satoshi Ōmura (Japan) isolated soil microbes to develop a new drug called avermectin. The drug’s derivative ivermectin has been used to treat infections caused by parasites and insects.

From animals to people: innovations for ‘One Health’

This award honours an aim of the One Health Initiative, where a class of drugs initially intended for veterinary medicine becomes widely used for human therapeutic uses to eradicate and prevent uncontrolled endemic diseases.
Ivermectin was developed from 1975 specifically to fight parasitic worms in the digestive tract and skin parasite larvae in farm animals. This therapy, which came to market in 1981, helped to keep all types of farm animals healthy and maintain production yields. Once shown to be safe in a variety of animal species, the World Health Organization authorised its use in people in 1987 for widespread debilitating diseases in Africa such as river blindness (onchocerciasis) and lymphatic filariasis.

INRA’s public research mission aim: guiding the responsible use of medicines

Certain consequences of these drugs, such as their environmental impacts and drug resistance in parasites, have become apparent over time. For thirty years, pharmacologists and toxicologists at INRA and the French national veterinary school in Toulouse (ENVT) have extensively examined these medicines to learn how to reduce unintended consequences and ensure they are used responsibly. Research carried out with research partners and the pharmaceutical industry has focused on several areas:

  • Limiting the ecotoxicity of these substances
  • Ensuring that these drugs are used in limited quantities on livestock and according to good practices
  • Maintaining food security through food safety
  • Developing agroecological approaches to guarantee the future efficacy of these medicines
  • Provide basic knowledge about their modes of action to plan for the next generation and thwart resistance phenomena
  • Offer insight to risk management authorities and direct public policy through knowledge

INRA and ENVT have published more than 200 articles on this research in scientific journals, helping to effect change in how these medicines are used and making them safer and more effective. Current research is focusing on agroecological principles in livestock production to promote environmentally-friendly uses. As a result, various management schemes that incorporate parasitism have been drawn up. They offer livestock management options to reduce the use of these drugs by 80% while still achieving the associated yield and wellbeing benefits.

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key figures

According to the World Health Organization (figures from May 2015):

Lymphatic filariasis:

  • 58 countries affected
  • 1.23 billion people requiring treatment

Onchocerciasis (river blindness)

  • 90% of cases are detected in Africa; the disease is also found in Latin America and Yemen
  • In some West African countries, the disease is responsible for causing blindness in half of those who are over 40 and blind

INRA’s research has helped to:

  • Outline livestock management strategies to reduce the use of these antiparasitic drugs by 80% while maintaining their long-term benefits