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Youyou Tu

tu photo by pi frisk

In 1969 Professor Youyou Tu was recruited to a secret medical research project, it would change hers and millions of other people’s lives forever.

Professor Youyou Tu from China shared last year’s Nobel Prize (1/2) in Physiology or Medicine for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria. Now 85 years-of-age, Tu continues to study artemisinin, the component which she was the first to show was highly effective against the Malaria parasite. She called it “a gift from traditional Chinese medicine to the world” in her Nobel lecture at the Karolinska Institute.

The “gift” started out in the 1960s as an officially permitted and secret research project initiated by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. All other research had been suspended because of the Cultural Revolution, but during the Vietnam War the number of soldiers who lost their lives to malaria were two to three times those lost in combat, and the malaria parasite had developed resistance to all drugs. The disease was treated by chloroquine or quinine, but with declining success. “There had been no good results at the military hospitals so they turned to my institute [the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing] looking for help in 1969,” recalled Tu when she was interviewed by Jane Perlez at the New York Times.

She turned to herbal medicine

Tu became the head of the program and, equipped with electricity, water and microscopes, she turned to herbal medicine to tackle the challenge. From a large-scale screen of herbal remedies in malaria-infected animals an extract from the plant Artemisia annua emerged as an interesting candidate. However, the results were inconsistent, so Tu revisited the ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her in her quest to successfully extract the active component from Artemisia annua.

Artemisinin represents a new class of antimalarial agents that rapidly kill the Malaria parasites at an early stage of their development. It is today used in all Malaria-ridden parts of the world. When used in combination therapy it is estimated to reduce mortality from Malaria by more than 20% overall and by more than 30% in children. For Africa alone this means that more than 100 000 lives are saved each year. Tu has expressed her gratitude for receiving the Nobel Prize, but for her that is just icing on the cake. “I feel more reward when I see so many patients cured,” said Tu in an interview with New Scientist.

China had no such things as patents

Some former colleagues of Tu have argued that the discovery of artemisinin was a group effort, not the work of an individual. In interviews Tu says she does not entirely disagree with that point of view, but notes that she led the team that made the crucial discoveries. Together with two colleagues she also took the medicine to show that it was not lethal in humans. “I thought it was my responsibility as a medical chemist and all part of the job,” said Tu to the New York Times.

She has not benefited from artemisinin’s commercial use because in those days China had no such thing as patents. “We did not know anything about patents. There were no boundaries of ownership or intellectual property. Whatever I did I handed over to the leadership. Everyone in the mission contributed what they could,” said Tu to the New York Times.

Youyou Tu

Born: 1930, Zhejiang Ningpo, China

Career: PhD, 1955, the Pharmacy Department at Beijing Medical University; Assistant Professor, 1965-1978, Associate Professor, 1979-1984, from 1985 Professor, from 2000, Chief Professor, the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Affiliation at the time of the award: China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Beijing, China

Family: Married to Tingzhao Li, a metallurgy engineer, two daughters

Photo by Pi Frisk