The Unknown Chinese Woman Who Helped Find a Treatment for Malaria

Among the three scientists awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work against parasites was Tu Youyou, an octogenarian pharmacologist whose work led to the development of the most effective treatment against malaria. But despite her invaluable role in saving millions of lives from this public health scourge, her contributions remained largely unknown, even in her own homeland.

Vox.com recounts the amazing story that led up to her breakthrough discovery.

In 1967, Chairman Mao Zedong set up a secret mission (“Project 523”) to find a cure for malaria. Hundreds of communist soldiers, fighting in the mosquito-infested jungles of Vietnam, were falling ill from malaria, and the disease was also killing thousands in southern China.

After Chinese scientists were initially unable to use synthetic chemicals to treat the mosquito-borne disease, Chairman Mao’s government turned to traditional medicine. Tu, a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, had studied both Chinese and Western medicine, according to a New Scientist profile, and was hand-plucked to search for an herbal cure.

By the time I started my search [in 1969] over 240,000 compounds had been screened in the US and China without any positive results,” she told the magazine. But, she added: “The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life.”

Tu’s dedication included first testing the promising treatment on herself, to ensure that it was safe. Once it was proven to have no side effects, she organized clinical trials for people with malaria, all of whom were incredibly cured of the disease within no more than a day.

Tu’s artemisinin-based cure remains the fastest-acting treatment for malaria to this day, with World Health Organization recommending similar therapies for first-line treatment for uncomplicated malaria.

“Tu was the first to show that this component, later called artemisinin, was highly effective against the malaria parasite, both in infected animals and humans,” according to the Nobel Committee.

For years, Tu’s role in unlocking artemisinin was shrouded in secret — until researchers at the National Institutes of Health looked into the drug’s history and realized that Tu deserved credit for her work. Only in 2011, when she won the prestigious Lasker prize for medical research, did the Chinese Communist Party move to preserve her childhood home.

In a statement, Tu called artemisinin “a gift for the world’s people from traditional Chinese medicine,” and urged researchers to turn to herbs in the search for cures for infectious diseases.

Tu also has the distinction of being the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine, having conducted all of her research in China.

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