By Elke Weesjes
Although Chinese traditional medicine (CTM) has been gaining popularity in the West for sometime, there’s still a bit of stigma attached to the herbal treatments and acupuncture that much of the world has come to rely on to treat their illnesses. That could change, though, thanks to Tu Youyou, who recently won Nobel recognition for a malaria cure based on CTM.
Tu, an 84-year-old Chinese scientist, was awarded half of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 for discovering a novel therapy against malaria on October 5. The other half was awarded jointly to scientists working with roundworm therapies.
Tu’s work is remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only does it lend credibility to traditional medicine (which the World Health Organization has said has been grossly underestimated as a public health tool), but she was also able to make the discovery while working under the dictatorship of Mao Zedong.
Tu attended pharmacology school in Beijing but has no medical degree, no doctorate, and has never worked overseas. She was recruited in 1969 to join a covert military operation called Project 523 that was tasked with finding a malaria cure.
At the time, Mao’s regime was particularly motivated to prevail over the deadly disease not just because it was a problem in China, but also because it was decimating the Vietnamese and Chinese troops that were fighting the U.S. Army in North Vietnam.
Project 523 was a response to the failed WHO worldwide malaria eradication campaign of the 1950s, which relied on the drug chloroquine to achieve its goal. Unfortunately, after some local success, the disease rebounded in many places, in part because of the emergence of chloroquine-resistant parasites.
While heading Project 523, Tu combed ancient texts and folk remedies for possible leads to an effective alternative to chloroquine. Two years and hundreds of herb extracts into her search, Tu and her team found a medical text by Fourth Century Chinese physician and alchemist Ge Hong that described using sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua L) to treat a disease which symptoms suggested was malaria.
Tu tweaked the recipe, and after successfully testing it on animals, she tested the drug on herself.
“As the head of the research group, I had the responsibility,” she told Chinese media, according to BBC News.
In 1971, the drug was tested on 21 people with two different strains of malaria and the associated fever and blood-borne parasites disappeared in both groups.
The drug, called Qinghaosu in China and commonly called Artemisinin in the West, has saved millions of lives in the past 40 or so years. Since her discovery, Tu has further modified Artemisinin and generated a compound called dihydroartemisinin, which delivers ten times more punch and reduces risk of disease recurrence. The compound forms the foundation of today’s therapies.
The most important lesson that can be learned from Tu’s success, according to Liu Qingquan, head of Beijing Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, is that the development of TCM must be combined with science and technology.
"If we cling to traditions and shun modern technology, all talks about TCM's development will be empty slogans," Liu told Chinese new agency Xinhua. “This is a proud moment for the Chinese people, and even more so for traditional Chinese medical practitioners.”