This year's Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine has been awarded for finding cures to several debilitating and fatal, insect-borne diseases of the impoverished world. They include Filariasis and Malaria, prevalent in Bangladesh. The news caught my attention with gratitude not only for the remedies of the diseases but also for the lifelong efforts of two very beloved biochemists of mine. Both of them had passed away while doing research on these diseases. They were Dr Mohammed Shahabuddin and Dr Apala Farhat Naved. They entered as biochemistry undergraduate students together at Dhaka University at a time when I was about to leave, but had the opportunity to lecture their class in late 1979. However, I came to know their work more closely in the later years.
I met Shahabuddin in 1990/91 when he joined as a postdoc at NIH to work on the malarial parasite. Globally, more than 450,000 lives are claimed by malaria each year, and 4.5 billion are prone to the disease! Many evenings my seven-year-old son would accompany Shahab to play with the mosquitoes in a cage in his lab. Shahab was feeding the insects with his own blood before and after the bugs were infected with malaria parasites. He would attend the mosquitoes days and nights to capture a particular stage of the parasite inside the insect. He was trying to find a molecule in the parasite or the mosquito that can be used to find a drug against malaria. He had published his research in the most prestigious biomedical journals, including Science and PNAS, several of which had earned him international fame. Sometime during 1995-97, one of his published papers was featured in a poster as one of the 'ten most significant discoveries of the century!' That poster was compiled by an international panel of malaria experts. He was the first person of Bangladesh origin to have led an independent research lab at NIH, the most prestigious biomedical research organisation in the world. While working as a faculty at Boston College, he surrendered his life to a rare form of lung cancer on 13 September, 2006. Socially, he was a highly popular person too.
Unlike most of the faces of her batch, that of Apala did not fade from my memory because of her talent as a Tagore song singer! Then, during my short visit to DU in 2004 she came forward to introduce herself. She was already an accomplished faculty there to the rank of a Professor. My accompanying wife and son were excited to meet this famous person but were also surprised to find a very unassuming personality in her! Hurriedly she gave me a tour of her lab, introduced to her students, and explained her work as she was handing me over some brochures and fliers. The brochures were of her research on eradicating, and fliers were on her social work in educating the commoners of parasitic diseases. One such disease was the mosquito-borne Filariasis. Ten crore people worldwide, including scores in Bangladesh suffer from this disease. I heard Rabindranath Tagore probably was afflicted by this physical stigma. I had wondered if her love for Tagore songs had any connection in choosing her research! But after her death, I read from numerous of her followers that whatever she did was from a love of her people! One of her senior colleagues wrote, "She was a fighter - not just for Science, but for the downtrodden and helpless". Like Shahab, she too succumbed to cancer, on 18 February 2011. At death she had gifted her body for medical education!
In an announcement on 5 October 2015, this year's Nobel Assembly in Karolinska Institute in Sweden stated, "William C Campbell and Satoshi ?mura discovered a new drug, Avermectin, the derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, as well as showing efficacy against an expanding number of other parasitic diseases. YouyouTu discovered Artemisinin, a drug that has significantly reduced the mortality rates for patients suffering from Malaria."
Shahab and Apala were good friends. Had they lived longer to continue their respective research, the Nobel Assembly might have more choices before making the announcement. Nonetheless, I am sure Shahab and Apala's departed souls are having a bright smile of satisfaction on this announcement.
Ashraf Ahmed, a former DU teacher, works as a biomedical scientist in the USA