The fight against leukaemia and malaria - two of the world's most virulent diseases - was rewarded in two out of the four categories at the recent European Inventor of the Year awards. Swiss medicinal chemist Dr Jürg Zimmermann along with US oncologist Dr Brian Druker won the award in the Industry category for his invention of the drug Glivec. Glivec has a 98% remission rate in people suffering from chronic myelogenous leukaemia (CML) - a rare form of leukaemia that affects about 10,000 people every year.

CML was once considered one of the worst forms of cancer. The only treatment was a bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy; both treatments are extremely painful and have many side effects, since the therapies attack healthy as well as cancerous cells. Glivec represents a breakthrough in cancer treatment as it only targets diseased cells.

Dr Zimmermann says of the drug, "There are different forms of leukaemia and Glivec is being used for CML only. This is extremely important. I think this will be the new way of approaching medicine in the future. With a very specific diagnosis the success rate of Glivec is more than 95%. In the past, diagnosis was less specific and chemotherapy was very unselective - it worked by attacking all cells."

Drs Zimmermann and Druker first began work on finding a cure for CML back in the late 1980s after the discovery by researchers in the US that 95% of patients with CML had an abnormally short chromosome. This leads to a DNA swap which creates a faulty signalling protein called BCR-ABL. The researchers began looking for inhibitors for BCR-ABL.

"During DNA replication, one piece of chromosome A swaps positions with chromosome B," Dr Zimmermann told. "Why this happens we don't know. In some cases it may be due to environmental factors, but in others it is probably just bad luck. Mistakes happen in the body all the time, but normally they are corrected. With a cancer cell the mistake isn't recognised."

For patients, the lack of side effects is a remarkable benefit as they can avoid gruelling and painful courses of chemotherapy. As Dr Zimmermann notes, "A lot of the attraction of Glivec for the clinicians is that it is so well tolerated. Patients often don't feel it at all. People suffer terribly from chemotherapy, but when we had the first clinical trials with Glivec, patients were saying, "Have you given me a placebo?" Some of the doctors immediately said that it couldn't be a cancer drug and that it would not work."

Glivec did work, though. White blood cells in patients declined remarkably, side effects were almost non-existent and Glivec is now the first treatment given to all CML patients.

"We worked on a simple principle," explained Dr Zimmermann. "We looked at the difference between a cancer cell and a healthy cell and we researched into what drove the cancer cell that is not present in the healthy cell. That was the target."

Another devastating disease that is causing havoc in Africa is malaria. Carried by mosquitoes, malaria has been infecting humans for around 50,000 years. It currently kills about 3 million to 5 million people every year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Professor Yiquing Zhou, from Beijing's Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology, China, who was honoured at the European Inventor of the Year awards in the Non-European Countries category, created a new drug to combat malaria that is a combination of an ancient Chinese remedy and a modern anti-malaria agent.

Many herbal remedies and drug therapies have been used throughout the centuries to fight malaria, but the mosquito parasite is tenacious and has become resistant over and over again to different treatments.

Professor Zhou turned to his native Chinese medicine and combined the ancient herb Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood), which was used to treat malaria for millennia before modern drugs came along, with an already proven malaria drug, benflumetol, to create a drug now being marketed as Coartem.

Fighting malaria is a personal crusade for Professor Zhou - he has been infected with the disease himself and has seen it sweep through populations many times in China, including in the military. He said of the new combined drug, "Chinese medicine is the right hand and western medicine is the left - combined they double the strength of a remedy."

Silvio Gabriel from Novartis, who are marketing Coartem, said, "You need a good inventor like the professor and his team to combine a traditionally used herb [...] with a western preparation which has anti-parasital benefits.

"So far we have not seen any resistance. But this is always a possibility, so it is very important that other methods are still used, such as bed nets and spraying."

Coartem is a simple treatment that consists of a packet of 12 pills, of which 4 must be taken each day for 3 days. It is having amazing results in African countries. Rwanda has reduced its malaria death rates by 60%, while in Ethiopia infant mortality is down by 50%. In Zambia, malaria cases have been reduced by 80% and deaths by 90%.

More than 235 million treatments of Coartem have been carried out so far, saving an estimated 600,000 lives. Silvo Gabriel said, "The results are extraordinary. In some areas such as Tanzania, we cannot [carry out] any more clinical trials because we can't find enough patients."

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