The first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize ever, Youyou Tu, 85, could not have imagined to become an icon for her quest to understand traditional medicine to find a new drug to defeat the most common malaria menace.
Born in China on 30 December, 1930, Youyou found artemisinin (Qinghaosu) and dihydroartemisinin, used to treat malaria, which saved millions of lives. Her discovery of artemisinin and its treatment of malaria is one of the significant breakthroughs of tropical medicine in the 20th Century that was widely used in tropical developing countries in South Asia, Africa, and South America.
She was earlier honoured with the 2011 Lasker Award in Clinical Medicine and now the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Tu was the first native Chinese to win Lasker award in history.
Tu carried out her research during he 1960s and 70s when China’s Cultural Revolution found scientists as the lowest class in Chinese society as per Mao’s theory. Due to evolving resistance to traditional malaria medicine Chloroquine, China’s ally, North Vietnam, which was at war with South Vietnam and the US, faced malaria as a major cause of death after the war.
Malaria also affected China’s southern provinces including Hainan, Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong. When Mao Zedong set up a secret drug discovery project, called Project 523 after its starting date, 23 May 1967, little progress was made despite scientists had screened over 240,000 compounds collected from the all over the world.
It was in 1969 that Youyou Tu, then 39, hit upon the idea of revisiting ancient Chinese medical classics and she visited old practitioners of Chinese medicine on her own, and wrote “A Collection of Single Practical Prescriptions for Anti-Malaria”, in which she summarized 640 prescriptions. Besides, her team screened over 2,000 traditional Chinese recipes and made 380 herbal extracts, which were tested on mice.
One of those compounds — sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), that was used for “intermittent fevers proved the ultimate find. Tu said the preparation was described in a 1,600-year old text, called, “Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve.”
Initially, the extraction method as described in the ancient script did not work as in biled water the real medicine evaporated. She changed the method using low-temperature to extract the effective compound and it showed highly effective result in mice and monkeys.
Above all, Tu volunteered to be the first human subject. “As head of this research group, I had the responsibility,” she said. Her work was published anonymously in 1977 and the first recognition came with the Lasker award. The Nobel prize came to her very late but credit goes to her for finding a therapy when China was in isolation and when her own pursut of research was not encouraged.