MILLIONS of people around the world who have suffered from malaria owe their lives to a modest Chinese scientist.
Here’s what you need to know about Nobel Prize winner Tu Youyou and the work she did on taking traditional medicine and adapting it to the modern age.
Who is Tu Youyou?
The 88-year-old was born and raised in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China and she studied pharmacology at Peking University in Beijing.
After graduating she became a researcher at the China Academy of Traditional Medicine and rose to become its Chief Scientist.
She is married metallurgical engineer Li Tingzhao and has two daughters.
Unusually for scientist working in her field in China, she has no medical degree, no doctorate and she’s never worked overseas.
How did she discover artemisinin and how does it affect malaria treatment?
Tu began her malaria research after she was recruited to a secret government unit known as Mission 523.
It was set up in 1967 on the orders of Chinas’ Communist leader Mao Zedong, who decreed there was an urgent need to find a cure for malaria.
Malaria spread by mosquitoes was decimating Chinese soldiers helping the North Vietnamese fight Americans in the jungle of Vietnam.
The disease was also a major problem in semi-tropical south China.
Scientists around the world had been experimenting with 240,000 compounds but with no success.
But in 1969, Tu hit upon the idea of looking at ancient books to find historical methods of fighting malaria.
The team found a brief reference to one substance, sweet wormwood, which had been used to treat malaria in China around 400 AD.
Reasearchers isolated one active compound in wormwood called artemsinin, which appeared to battle malaria-friendly parasites.
The team then tested extracts of the compound but nothing was effective in eradicating the drug until Tu Youyou returned to the original ancient text.
After carefully going through it again, she tweaked the drug recipe one final time, heating the extract without allowing it to reach boiling point.
The drug showed promising results in mice and monkeys, Tu Youyou volunteered to be the first human to test it.
“As the head of the research group, I had the responsibility,” she said.
After deeming the drug safe, clinical trials began using Chinese labourers.
A highly effective drug anti-malarial drug called dihydroartemisinin was made from artemisinin in 1973.
Artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin have proven to be highly potent in anti-malarial preparations.
They are now essential components of the standard treatment for Plasmodium falciparum malaria worldwide.
Her work was published anonymously in 1977 but for decades she received little recognition for her research with Mission 523.
Finally in 2015, Tu Youyou won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
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