You may have heard about Tu Youyou’s recent win of the Nobel Prix in physiology and medicine for the discovery of Artemisinin, the basis of modern-day malaria medication.
Malaria is a deadly disease caused by parasite that’s transmitted by mosquitoes in tropical and subtropical areas. By the 1960’s, the parasite had become immune to anti-parasitic drugs and treatments and was ravaging the population of many Asian countries.
Tu started her research during the Vietnam War, when Chinese soldiers started quickly dying off from malaria. In fact, between 1955-1975, malaria killed between 2 to 3 times more soldiers than warfare did. That’s why she was called to be a part of a secret government project called Mission 523.
Tu turned to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to find a cure. Her team screened over 2,000 compounds before coming across sweet wormwood, a plant containing Artemisinin, which was discovered to lower fever in 400 AD.
Although TCM literature mentioned boiling the herb, she believed too much heat would destroy Artemisinin and proceeded to isolate the compound by never bringing the solution to a boil. Her research evolved to discover dihydroartemisinin a compound 10 times more powerful against malaria that also reduced the risk of recurrence of symptoms. This discovery would set the foundation for modern-day malaria medication.
Oddly enough, although she is a researcher at the Academy of Chinese Traditional Medicine, Tu has neither a doctorate nor a medical degree. Because of this, she’s been refused membership to Chinese Academy of Sciences, although they’ve sent her letters of congratulations and awards for her research.
Tu’s anti-malaria drug has made it on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines that are distributed free or at low cost. Although it’s taken a long time for Tu to receive recognition, it can be said that her Nobel Prize is well deserved and long overdue. Through a little persistence and a little help from her ancestors, Tu has made her mark on medical history and humanity as a whole.