Tu Youyou: The Nobel Laureate Who Discovered a Cure for Malaria from Ancient Chinese Medicine
Malaria is a deadly disease that affects millions of people around the world, especially in tropical and developing regions. For decades, scientists have been searching for an effective treatment that can combat the parasite that causes malaria. In 2015, one of them, Tu Youyou, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her groundbreaking discovery of artemisinin, a drug derived from a traditional Chinese herb that has saved millions of lives.
Who is Tu Youyou?
Tu Youyou was born in Ningbo, China, on December 30, 1930. She attended Peking University Medical School and graduated in 1955. She then worked at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (now the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences) in Beijing, where she received training in traditional Chinese medicine for two and a half years.
In 1969, during the Cultural Revolution, Tu was assigned to a secret military project called Project 523, which aimed to find a cure for malaria. At that time, malaria was a major threat to Chinese soldiers and civilians in Vietnam, where the parasite had become resistant to existing drugs such as chloroquine.
How did Tu discover artemisinin?
Tu and her colleagues screened thousands of traditional Chinese remedies for anti-malarial activity, but none of them showed promising results. Tu then decided to revisit an ancient text called The Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency Treatments, written by Ge Hong in the fourth century. She found a reference to a herb called qinghao (Artemisia annua or sweet wormwood), which was used to treat intermittent fevers, a symptom of malaria.
Tu suspected that the conventional extraction methods used by her team might have destroyed the active ingredient of qinghao. She decided to try a different approach: she soaked the plant in cold water, wrung out the juice, and then boiled it down to a thick paste. She then tested this extract on mice infected with malaria and found that it reduced their parasitemia by more than 60%.
Tu then volunteered to be the first human subject to test the safety of the extract. She took a small dose and found no adverse effects. She then conducted clinical trials on patients with malaria and confirmed that the extract was highly effective and had few side effects. She named the active compound qinghaosu, or artemisinin in English.
What is the impact of artemisinin?
Artemisinin is a sesquiterpene lactone with a unique peroxide bridge that reacts with iron in the parasite’s blood cells and produces free radicals that kill the parasite. Artemisinin is fast-acting and potent against all stages of the parasite’s life cycle. It is also effective against drug-resistant strains of malaria.
However, artemisinin also has some drawbacks: it is unstable in heat and light, it has a short half-life in the body, and it can induce resistance if used alone. Therefore, Tu and her colleagues also developed derivatives of artemisinin, such as dihydroartemisinin, which are more stable and soluble. They also recommended combining artemisinin with other drugs to prevent resistance and enhance efficacy. This combination therapy is now the standard treatment for malaria worldwide.
Artemisinin and its derivatives have saved millions of lives in South China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global mortality rate from malaria fell by 60% between 2000 and 2015, largely due to artemisinin-based combination therapies.
What are the honors and challenges of Tu?
Tu’s discovery of artemisinin was not widely recognized until decades later, partly because she published her findings in Chinese journals that were not accessible to international scientists, and partly because she did not have a PhD degree or a membership in any Chinese national academy. She also faced political and cultural barriers during the Cultural Revolution, which disrupted scientific research and education in China.
However, Tu’s achievements have gradually gained recognition and appreciation from the global scientific community. She has received numerous awards and honors, including:
– The Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award (2011)
– The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2015), jointly with William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura
– The Medal of the Republic (2019), the highest state honor in China
Tu is the first Chinese Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine and the first female citizen of China to receive a Nobel Prize in any category. She is also the first Chinese person to receive the Lasker Award.
Tu is still working as the chief scientist at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences. She is also involved in the development of new drugs for tuberculosis and cancer, based on traditional Chinese medicine. She hopes to inspire more young scientists to pursue innovative and interdisciplinary research that can benefit humanity.
Tu Youyou is a remarkable scientist who discovered a cure for malaria from ancient Chinese medicine. She combined her knowledge of modern pharmacology and traditional Chinese medicine to find artemisinin, a drug that has saved millions of lives and changed the course of tropical medicine. She overcame many challenges and obstacles to achieve her goal, and she continues to contribute to the advancement of science and health. She is a role model for women and scientists around the world.