Laureation address: Professor Satoshi Ōmura

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Professor Garry Taylor, Master of the United College and Deputy Principal

Wednesday 27 June 2018

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Professor Satoshi Ōmura.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded for both a key discovery and for conferring the greatest benefit on mankind. Through painstaking work and key international collaborations, Professor Ōmura discovered a naturally occurring chemical compound, avermectin, which has formed the basis for the worldwide control and ultimate eradication of two of the world’s most debilitating parasitic diseases: river blindness and elephantiasis. For this he was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize.

How did he discover avermectin? Professor Ōmura was brought up in a rural community in Japan where people depend on the land and nature to provide for their livelihoods, and this influenced his philosophy that nature can provide virtually everything we need for our survival. He trained as a chemist in Tokyo, and became particularly skilled in the use of the then novel method of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to analyse the molecular structures of chemical compounds. A research position at Yamanashi University in 1963 stimulated a lifelong interest in, and respect for, microorganisms as producers of remarkable new chemistries. In 1965, he moved to the Kitasato Institute for Life Sciences, where he remains as a Distinguished Emeritus Professor.

At the Kitasato Institute, Professor Ōmura developed novel screening methods for isolating and characterising chemical compounds produced by microorganisms and ascertaining if they had any interesting biological activity that might be useful to human or animal health.

A key event in the discovery of avermectin was a sabbatical visit that Professor Ōmura made in 1971 to the laboratory of Professor Max Tishler at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Max Tishler had been Director of the Research Laboratories of Merck, Sharp and Dohme, which remains one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. Through this link, Professor Ōmura established one of the world’s first and most successful public/private sector partnerships where the Kitasato Institute in Japan would collect soil samples, identify promising new microbes, isolate, screen and characterise novel chemical compounds and conduct in vitro biological evaluations. In the US, Merck would then carry out animal testing in their innovative animal models and develop any promising compounds towards the market, which initially was focused on drugs for veterinary use.

It was a bacterium Streptomyces avermectinius, isolated from a soil sample, that yielded avermectin. Merck found that it showed anti-parasitic activity against the nematode worm, Nematospiroides dubius. Ivermectin, a safer and more potent derivative of avermectin, became the world’s biggest selling veterinary drug. It was later found to be a safe and effective drug for humans infected by filarial parasitic worms.

The impact of ivermectin on global health is staggering. It is envisaged that onchocerciasis (river blindness) will be eliminated globally by 2025, and lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) will be eliminated by 2020. The drug, which only has to be taken once a year, is being donated free of charge by Merck and administered to 300 million people a year in some of the world’s poorest communities, overseen by the World Health Organisation and various NGOs. The transformational effect on human health and rebuilding communities is immeasurable. Ivermectin is also showing broader use in the treatment of strongyloidiasis, scabies and head lice. As Professor Ōmura would say, the drug is a remarkable gift of nature.

Avermectin is but one of several key molecules discovered by Professor Ōmura. His work has identified 13 new genera and 52 new species of microorganisms, and over 500 new chemical compounds, 26 of which show potential as new drugs. In addition, his team has mapped the genome of Streptomyces avermectinius and characterised the biosynthetic pathway used by the bacterium to synthesise avermectin. This will allow novel derivatives of avermectin to be produced efficiently.

Respect, one of the eight virtues of the Bushido code that Professor Ōmura adheres to, is a recurring theme in his life. These are a respect for nature and of its myriad microorganisms; a respect of key mentors and colleagues who he always generously acknowledges; a respect of other disciplines in science and what they can contribute to a successful collaboration, and a respect of his roots. In this last respect, he established the Yamanashi Academy of Sciences in his home prefecture where key scientists visit schools and colleges to encourage them to take up an interest in the natural sciences. In addition, his lifelong love of Japanese art led him to design and construct his own art museum which he has bequeathed to his hometown of Nirasaki. Professor Ōmura was an early proponent of “Healing Art”, and all four Kitasato hospitals and his research laboratories, have artworks from his collection on their walls to create an ideal environment for people to regain their health or do their best research.

Finally, Professor Ōmura is a consummate golfer. It is interesting to note that Streptomyces avermectinius was isolated from a soil sample collected on the periphery of a golf course at Kawana. As he takes in a round of golf this week, I cannot help thinking that he might just scoop up a small sample of the Old Course just in case it yields the next wonder drug. If it does, perhaps I can respectfully suggest the he names the organism Streptomyces sanctusandrea?

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to drug discovery and global health, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on Professor Satoshi Ōmura.

Response from Professor Satoshi Ōmura

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Professor Taylor for his kind introduction and Professor Mapstone for her support and encouragement. And everyone involved in recognising my work as having been worthy of a place alongside the prestigious names that have graced these hallowed halls.

It is a great privilege and honour to humbly and with the immense pleasure receive the accolade of Honorary Doctorate from this historic place. I believe that I may be the first scientist from Japan to be so honoured. I sincerely hope the outcome will help promote understanding, friendship and collaboration between Britain and Japan.

I was born during the turn of the Age of Antibiotics. Antibiotics have saved millions of lives, and allowed surgery, transplant, dialysis and many other of the medical interventions to become commonplace. 

My life’s work has been governed by the profound belief that Nature remains the source of all the chemicals we could possibly need for any purpose. We just haven’t found them yet.

Sadly, we now face the sunset of the Age of Antibiotics. Increasing antibiotic resistance means we risk losing the advances in medicine that occurred during the last century. With the dire prospect of a return to the pre-antibiotic era.

No matter what your future holds, I urge you all to work together. To join the search for new antibiotics that I know exist in Nature. And to help keep those we already have effective for as long as possible.

As we say in Japanese, “ Ichi go ichi e” or in Latin “Carpe omnia”. (English: “Seize every opportunity”.)

Honto ni arigatou gozaimasu. Thank you very much.