Satoshi Ōmura

Honoring and respecting his predecessors, he searched for ways to contribute to public welfare through "Research Management"

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the discovery of Avermectin, a statue was placed in the entrance of Kitasato Institute for Life Sciences. A child is leading an adult who has become blind due to Onchocerciasis. Similar statues exist in Switzerland (WHO), the United States (World Bank, Merck & Co.), and Burkina Faso (APOC headquarters).

Turning points always come from first encounters Prof. Ōmura has long believed that new encounters offer unlimited potential and opportunities. He first "met" microorganisms immediately after finishing his Masters degree. The meeting came about while he was researching brandy brewing, working under Professor Motoo Kagami of Yamanashi University, who is notable for his research in producing wine. Since then Prof. Ōmura has experienced numerous notable encounters, which can only be described as 'sheer luck', throughout his research work in natural product and microbial chemistry. When results from a medical examination just before he entered the Kitasato Institute indicated the possibility of tuberculosis, the then President of the Institute, Professor Tojyu Hata, personally diagnosed him, stating "nothing abnormal detected". After joining the institute, while in the process of determining the structure of the antibiotic "leucomycin", Professor Haruo Ogura offered him a new opportunity to work in Natural Products Chemistry. In addition, Yukimasa Yagisawa, General Manager of the Japan Antibiotics Research Association, facilitated an opportunity for Ōmura to go to work abroad in the United States. While encounters with extraordinary mentors such as these are too numerous to mention, Ōmura considers his most important encounter to be with Professor Max Tishler of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which took place in 1971. At the time, Ōmura, who had followed up on the leads given by Dr. Yagisawa and approached several contacts in the US, was contemplating offers of pay and working conditions he had received from five professors he had sent an application to. However, one of the five actually telegraphed him with an offer but the annual salary was strikingly low, around half of what the others were offering. Ōmura decided to accept the lowest offer, thinking "if the pay is so low, there must be something else behind it". The sender of the telegraph was Professor Tishler.

Picture: When Ōmura first entered the Kitasato Institute, he regularly came to work at 6am out of sheer joy of being able to focus on his research.

What awaited him was nothing but the best

"Something" was indeed hidden in the offer. Max Tishler arranged a position as a Visiting Professor for Ōmura in a new Chemistry department that he had established following his retirement as Head of Research at the US-based pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.. The position allowed Ōmura to exploit both the department's human resources and its excellent laboratory facilities. In addition, Prof Tishler became the President of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest Chemistry community. Tishler was also widely recognised as the person responsible for restoring Merck & Co. to its position as one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies.

Picture : The biggest turning point of his life; working abroad - with Professor Max Tishler at Wesleyan University (right) in 1971

As a result, internationally-renowned researchers and entrepreneurs, who would normally be inaccessible to young scientists, visited Prof. Tishler on almost a daily basis, and he introduced Ōmura to the distinguished visitors as a colleague and key member of his research team. "I was only abroad for a little over a year, but the time I spent were rich and fruitful", Ōmura recalls. The experiences abroad, coupled with his personal background as a national competitor in cross-country skiing, led Ōmura to believe that placing oneself among individuals with superior abilities and learning from them is of paramount importance for success in any field. After he obtained a post as Professor at the Kitasato University School of Pharmacy, he launched the Kitasato Microbial Chemistry (KMC) seminar, in which he invited only world-class researchers from Japan and internationally to take part. Furthermore in 1990, the year following Professor Tishler's death, he launched the Max Tishler Memorial Symposium in honour of his mentor and friend, who had exhibited such excellence in research and teaching, with several collaborators going on to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

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Picture : "The life and times of ivermectin: a success story" to celebrate the 25th anniversary, "Nature Reviews," a scholarly journal featured his research. (2004)

An Academic-Industrial Alliance for Fruitful Research

A request to return to the Kitasato Institute was sent to Ōmura in 1972. Thinking that it would be impossible to establish a well-funded research programme back in Japan, Ōmura scrambled to find a US-based company to partner with, using his willingness to conduct joint research in new pharmaceuticals as a bargaining chip. Ōmura finally opted for an exceptional deal with Merck & Co. created thanks to Prof Tishler's personal connections (especially with Dr Lou Sarrett his successor as Head of Research) and invaluable assistance in negotiating with the company. The international academic-industrial alliance set up marked a precedent all such future partnerships and became a model for many hugely significant future developments.

Picture : The Actinomycete which produces Avermectin. It was discovered from a soil sample collected in Shizuoka prefecture. The original organism is safely preserved.

※2 Renamed as the "Tishler-Ōmura Lecture" in 2008, after the merger of the Kitasato Institute and Kitasato University
※3 An antibiotic discovered from an actinomycete belonging to the Streptomyces genus. It has been attarcting attention in recent years due to its anticancer properties.

Immediately following his return to Japan, Ōmura established a laboratory to discovery lead, naturally-occurring compounds for development into veterinary drugs, the animal health field being full of massive commercial promise. He went around Japan collecting and analyzing soil samples in a quest to find microorganisms that held potential medicinal properties. Countless samples proved worthless, but he did produce a handful of highly significant results, such as the discovery of Staurosporine. In 1974, Ōmura discovered Streptomyces avermitilis (later named avermectinius). This microorganism produced a compound, avermectin, which exhibited unheralded antiparasitic properties, including extremely potent anthelmintic activity, as proven through animal testing by Merck & Co.. An interdisciplinary, international research team developed the compound into a derivative named Ivermectin, which following its development by Merck & Co, and introduction onto the market in 1981, quickly became the best-selling anthelmintic among livestock farmers worldwide. The beneficial effects of the product and his remarkable accomplishment was widely covered by the media in Japan. In addition, Ōmura was ensured a long-term, high royalty income from the proceeds of all sales of products based on avermectin and ivermectin. 

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Picture: In Ghana, where ivermectin is helping to eliminate Onchocerciasis. Even the children know all about the drug (2004)

Ivermectin effective on intractable human diseases

Ivermectin was also found to have various beneficial properties in human health. It proved to be a groundbreaking discovery by demonstrating excellent and extremely safe medicinal effects in preventing and treating Onchocerciasis (commonly known as River Blindness), a human disease widespread in Africa and Latin America. After working closely with the World Health Organization to prove that the drug worked and was safe, a ground-breaking precedent was arrived at to donate ivermectin free of charge (under the brand name Mectizan®) to treat Onchocerciasis, starting in 1988. Multidisciplinary, multisector and highly successful disease control programmes were established in Africa and Latin America where the disease occurs. They continue to this day, freeing some 120 million individuals worldwide from infection – all thanks to Ivermectin. In addition, the drug is now being widely used to treat other infections and diseases, such as Lymphatic filariasis, strongyloidiasis, and scabies, some of which are prevalent in Japan. Today, ivermectin is administered free of charge to around 300 million people each year around the world.


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Satoshi Ōmura

Satoshi Ōmura is President Emeritus of the Kitasato Institute and Professor Emeritus at Kitasato University Besides his posts at the Kitasato Institute and University, Ōmura is Max Tishler Professor of Chemisrty at Wesleyan University (USA) and holds key posts as President of Joshibi University of Art and Design and President of the Yamanashi Academy of Sciences. He is also a Member of the Japan Academy



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