Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist Has Ties to Wesleyan University

Oct 5, 2015

One of the three recipients of the Nobel Prize in Medicine refined his award-winning discovery while studying at Wesleyan University in Middletown. Satoshi Omura won the prize for his work unearthing a compound later developed into the drug Ivermectin.

Ivermectin is used to treat a number of parasitic diseases in the developing world. In a statement, the Nobel Prize committee called the impact of the drug "immeasurable," saying it helped millions suffering from diseases like river blindness.

"We have more or less expected, that at some year, he would receive the Nobel Prize," said Albert Fry, a professor of chemistry at Wesleyan University. Fry worked there in 1971 when Omura, who was on sabbatical, came to Middletown to study.

Fry said Omura was examining extracts from a number of soil samples he'd collected while working in Japan. "And then they test it to see if there's anything of interest in there," he said, like naturally-occurring bacteria that could be medicinally beneficial.

Fry said, usually, these tests don't yield much, but while at Wesleyan, Omura hit upon one compound that seemed promising. Fry said he looked at Omura's lab book from that day years later. "Across one line of that page were a series of exclamation points," he said. 

Fry said he couldn't understand it -- it was all in Japanese -- but the significance was clear: Omura had discovered one compound that killed legions of harmful bacteria.

He took his finding to the pharmaceutical company Merck, and eventually, the compound Ivermectin was born. Today, Omura still has lots of ties to Wesleyan. Fry said he visits the school frequently. Omura has an honorary doctorate from the University, and he created an endowed fund for the school's chemistry department, which, in part, supports research done by junior faculty.