NC has proud history of life-changing medical discoveries

When the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was announced this month, the three winners had a couple key things in common. They had developed effective treatments for diseases that have been scourges throughout human history – and they found those treatments through the study of products that exist naturally in the environment.

The experiments of America’s William C. Campbell and Japan’s Satoshi Omura with certain bacteria occurring in soil led to the development of the drug Avermectin. It has revolutionized the fight against river blindness, a parasitic disease prevalent in Africa, Asia and Latin America. China’s Youyou Tu, meanwhile, investigated traditional herbal medicine to create Artemisinin. The drug has a powerful ability to combat malaria, the mosquito-borne disease that kills more than 450,000 people globally each year.

Their successes call to mind North Carolina’s own proud history in the field of natural products – and how our pursuit of life-changing medicines continues today.

It’s a little known fact that two of the most effective treatments for cancer originated at RTI International in the Research Triangle. It was there that researchers Mansukh Wani and the late Monroe Wall discovered both Taxol and camptothecin, which have become two of modern medicine’s most potent weapons against certain types of cancer.

Taxol, developed from the Pacific yew tree, is best known for its effectiveness against ovarian cancer as well as Kaposi’s sarcoma, which often occurs in conjunction with AIDS. Camptothecin, obtained from a Chinese tree, works against colon cancer and has led to the development of other promising anti-cancer drugs.

“When you walk into your neighborhood drugstore, a quarter of all the prescription and over-the-counter drugs you see there come from nature,” says Nicholas Oberlies, a chemistry professor at UNC-Greensboro who trained with Wall and Wani at RTI and is at the vanguard of a new generation of natural products scientists. “If you’re looking specifically at anti-cancer drugs or antibiotics, that number jumps to closer to 60 percent.”

“Penicillin is probably the best known example,” says Oberlies, who runs UNC-Greensboro’s Natural Products and Drug Discovery Center. “It came from a fungus, and if it hadn’t been discovered, 40 percent of us wouldn’t be here. I mean that literally. Our grandmother would have died or one of our parents would have died along the way from something that today we think is just a little infection.”

But it can take decades to make drugs from natural products. So, in the 1980s and 1990s, many pharmaceutical companies began relying on computer models and synthetic creations to accelerate drug development.

With the pendulum slowly swinging back again toward natural products, Oberlies’ work is supported by three major federal grants. The largest, focused on identifying fungi that can help treat cancer, is funded by the National Cancer Institute. Research partners include Ohio State, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia University, and Mycosynthetix, a biotechnology company in Hillsborough.

Filling the gap

Founded in 2001, Mycosynthetix’s extensive library of fungi has attracted research partners from around the globe. It’s a field rich with opportunity. There are estimated to be 1.5 million to 5.5 million types of fungi in the world. Only about 100,000 of them have been named and a much smaller number have been studied for drug leads. Mycosynthetix is filling the gap with research on how fungi might support organic farming and help fight help cancer, parasites and dangerous bacteria.

Similar work is under way on the coast, where MARBIONC – a research and development program based at UNC-Wilmington since 2005 – is probing for new products and technology drawn from marine life. Among the discoveries of MARBIONC scientists who are examining cultured marine and freshwater microbes: a new antiviral compound, several anti-bacterial compounds, a novel candidate for addressing cystic fibrosis, and several potential anti-cancer agents. All of them offer valuable leads to pharmaceutical and biotech groups in search of groundbreaking medical treatments.

It can take a lifetime to hit upon the results that won natural products researchers this year’s Nobel Prize – and there’s no guarantee that many of the researchers in this small but highly influential field will ever see their work land on drugstore shelves. But it’s happened here before. And if it does again, the benefits will stretch well beyond our state’s borders.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.