by Xiaomeng Han
Malaria has been a life-threatening infectious disease since ancient times. It is transmitted through the bite of mosquitos, making it widespread in tropical and subtropical areas of our planet. The world saw countless deaths caused by malaria until a Chinese pharmaceutical scientist, Youyou Tu, discovered a very effective drug called Qinghaosu (aka artemisinin) from the plant Qinghao (aka artemisia). Youyou’s work won her the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2015, but she is an exceptional Nobel laureate because of her background and her unique scientific journey.
Youyou was born in 1930 in China. She got her name from an ancient Chinese poem that translates as ‘deer call (“youyou”) when they are happily eating the plant Qinghao in the wild.’ As unbelievable as it seems, it was a complete coincidence that Youyou’s scientific career turned out to be closely bonded with her namesake. Youyou contracted tuberculosis when she was in high school, motivating her to study medicine to help others who suffer from diseases. To this end, she studied Chinese herbal medicine at Beijing Medical College and graduated in 1955. Because, at that time, China didn’t have postgraduate education, she never earned a medical degree or a doctoral degree.
In 1969, Youyou was appointed the director of a national project in China to develop a drug against malaria. Her team took a unique approach by going back to classical Chinese herbal medicine books. She compiled more than six hundred herbal medicine prescriptions in her notebook and led her team in testing many of in animal studies. Among these herbs, Qinghao stood out because it was mentioned as a treatment for malaria’s hallmark symptom (intermittent fever) in a 1,600-year-old Chinese medicine book. In order to develop an effective drug, the active ingredient of Qinghao must be extracted from the plant. However, the team’s extraction attempt failed, so Youyou decided to return to the classics again. Inspired by the same ancient book, she finally found a way to use a low-temperature method to make the active extract and named it “Qinghaosu”.
After Youyou’s team proved that Qinghaosu can effectively treat malaria in mice and monkeys, Youyou and two of her colleagues volunteered to test the drug on themselves for safety before they started a clinical trial. It turned out that Qinghaosu was safe, and all the patients in the trial recovered. Eventually, Qinghaosu became the first-line treatment for malaria recommended by the World Health Organization, saving millions of lives in south Asia, Africa, and America.
In 2015, when Youyou was awarded with the Nobel Prize in medicine, she refused to take all the credit but instead praised all her colleagues and Chinese herbal medicine. Undoubtedly, Youyou is a very different Nobel Laureate, but she shares the common desire with other scientists to help people. She once proudly said “Every scientist dreams of doing something that can help the world.”
Xiaomeng Han is a graduate student in the Harvard Ph.D. Program in Neuroscience. She uses electron microscopy to study neuronal connectivity.
Photograph of Youyou Tu licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
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