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Only a privileged few win the Nobel Prize in their lifetime. Even fewer do so in the scientific category without a medical or a doctorate. Tu Youyou, a Chinese chemist and Malariologist did just that. She won the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for discovering an anti-malaria drug called artemisinin.
In the mid-1960s, millions all over the world were suffering from Malaria. Chloroquine, the go-to anti-malaria treatment at the time, had become resistant to the disease. To overcome this newer version of Malaria, Chairman Mao Zedong launched Project 523 and appointed Tu Youyou as its director.
In the quest to find the malaria cure, Tu Youyou and her team turned to classical Chinese medicinal books. After hours of studying various herbs, they found mentions of Qinghao in a 1600-year-old book that cited it as the treatment for malaria symptoms.
The work was only half done. Developing an effective drug required one more step: extracting an active ingredient from Qinghao. After the first failed attempt, Tu created the active extract successfully using a low-temperature method inspired by the same book. She named the drug Qinghaosu.
To deem the drug safe before the clinical trial, she initially tested it on herself and a few of her team members. Two decades after Tu’s findings, Qinghaosu became the first WHO-recommended anti-malaria drug that helped millions in their battle with Malaria.
The First Trial
In 1972, Tu and her team tested the substance on twenty one malaria patients. Close to 50% of the patients received a parasite called Plasmodium falciparum through injection, the deadliest malaria-causing microbial miscreants. The others received Plasmodium vivax, commonly known as a parasite that causes recurring malaria fevers.
The team monitored the patients closely as they checked the body temperature of patients and the changes in the number of parasites in their blood specimens.
The test concluded that the fever of people from both groups went away quickly, along with the blood-borne parasites using chromatography to separate the components of the extract. However, when Tu and her team extracted Qinghaosu In November, they noticed an unusual structure.
It was deemed a sesquiterpene lactone with a peroxide group having a different compound than other known anti-malaria drugs. The studies later concluded that the peroxide portion is necessary for its fatal effects on the parasite.
Seeing the success of Tu and her team, other scientists joined hands in further enhancing the extraction procedures and conducting clinical trials. Soon enough, over 2000 patients received the substance. Additionally, the drug helped cure 131 out of the 141 patients with cerebral Malaria. The notable effect of the drug was that it acted quicker than chloroquine without the harmful side effects.
In 1981, a group of scientists working on Malaria chemotherapy invited Tu Youyou to showcase her findings. She educated people about artemisinin and its chemical by-products.
Since 2006, WHO has advised against using artemisinin compounds as solo therapies and recommends numerous combination treatments that contain an artemisinin-based compound and an unrelated chemical.
One manufacturer that provides these drug combinations and has an agreement with WHO is Novartis. Moreover, the company supplies the drugs at zero profit to public health systems in countries where the disease is especially prevalent.
Childhood & Education
Tu Youyou was born in the Chinese city of Ningbo on December 30, 1930. Her father worked in a bank, and her mother was a housewife who looked after Tu Youyou and her four brothers. Tu and her family always prioritized education. This approach by her family allowed her to pursue education in top schools and get better opportunities.
At the age of sixteen, Tu Youyou unfortunately contracted tuberculosis. As a result, she had to take a two-year break from her studies as she received treatment at home.
The tuberculosis incident led her to choose medical research for her advanced education and career. The thought behind the decision was to keep herself and others healthy. After graduating high school, she took the university entrance exam. She was selected to become a student at the Department of Pharmacy at the Medical School of Peking University.
Another reason why Tu chose the pharmacy field was her interest in seeking new medicines for patients. In the second year of her university training, the medical school separated from Peking University and became the independent Beijing Medical College.
At that time, the university offered and designed numerous courses such as pharmacognosy, medicinal chemistry, and phytochemistry. Tu majored in a study called “crude drugs” in pharmacognosy. In addition, she also got an opportunity to attend the basic training programs in the pharmaceutical sciences.
With the help of these programs, she gained more insights and knowledge on herbs and plants. That included a better understanding of how these herbal medicines function compared to traditional Chinese medicines.
Chinese vs. Western Medicine
At the beginning of the 1950s, China did not have enough medical resources. The country had around twenty thousand physicians and over ten thousand traditional medical practitioners.
To compensate for the lack of resources and dive deeper into Chinese medicines, the national leadership launched programs to cultivate new ideas to enhance Chinese healthcare services. These programs aimed at combining Western medicine with traditional Chinese medicines.
The medical graduates and young doctors were encouraged to learn about Chinese medicine. On the other hand, experienced medical practitioners were encouraged to attend training courses to understand Western medicine intricately. These steps allowed further explorations and development of Chinese medicine and its application through modern scientific approaches.
In the 1950s, Scientists with a Western medical background received opportunities for systematic training in traditional Chinese medicine. Tu also attended 2.5 years of training programs that helped her learn about traditional Chinese medical theory. Moreover, she gained experience through her medical practice.
Tu attended another program on the processing of Chinese Materia Medica. This pharma technology is used widely for the preparation of Chinese materia medica. Knowledge of such processing and understanding how different processes affect the herbs benefitted Tu and her work to a large degree.
Helping The World
Tu youyou is the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific category. While the publicity was a part of her success, it was never the primary source of motivation. In fact, her research work was initially published anonymously in 1977. She credits all the praise for this success to her team from modern and ancient China.
She believes every scientist aspires to make the world a better place. Tu is no exception. More than fame and recognition, what makes her content the most is that her discovery of artemisinin helped save millions of lives across the globe.