The mysterious origins of Artemisinin

In 2015, Tu Youyou became the first Chinese national to win a Nobel Prize in the scientific field. The discovery of artemisinin « has led to development of a new drug that has saved the lives of millions of people, halving the mortality rate of malaria during the past 15 years », stated Professor Hans Forssberg, member of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medecine. For World Malaria Day 2016, DiscovHER takes a look at the woman who has had such a remarkable impact in the fight against the disease.

In 1967, Tu was asked to work on “Project 523” by Chairman Mao Zedong. His troops were fighting in Vietnam and were dying from malaria at a frightening rate. Scientists all over the world had already been searching for a solution, and had tested over 240,000 compounds in hopes for a cure, but with no luck. Tu, who had studied traditional Chinese medicine, turned to ancient texts and took trips to remote areas of China searching for possible answers.


With incredible diligence, she collected and tested a list of 2,000 potential remedies, which included a compound derived from sweet wormwood - drawing inspiration from an ancient manual she had reviewed that mentioned the effects of the sweet wormwood compound in treating malaria. With tenacity, Tu Youyou worked to find an extraction technique that would work, as she discovered high temperatures were killing the active ingredient, and volunteered to be the first human test subject for the compound. Following her persistent efforts, she found that the compound was effective, and her discovery led to the drug artemisinin, which is now commonly used to combat malaria, the mosquito-borne disease that kills 450,000 people each year.


However, until recently, no one knew the origins of the drug. In 2005 Louis Miller and Xinzhuan Su, malaria researchers at the US National Institutes of Health in Maryland, USA, set to work uncovering the drug’s past, and who was responsible for the discovery. After themselves scouring old letters, notebooks and meeting transcripts, they found who they were looking for: Tu Youyou.


Now, more than 45 years later, Tu Youyou is getting the recognition she deserves. In 2011, she received the United States’ top medical accolade, the Lasker Award. Four years later, she was awarded a share of the 2015 Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology, along with William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura, making her one of 18 women to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific field since the Prize’s foundation.


What other women scientists deserve the Nobel Prize, in your opinion? Let us know @4womeninscience

L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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