THE 2015 Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to Dr Tu Youyou this week for her discovery of artemisinin, the most effective treatment available for malaria today. Dr Tu shares this year’s award with Dr William Campbell, from Ireland, and Dr Satoshi Omura, from Japan, who were also awarded for their work against parasitic diseases. Dr Tu, who is the first Chinese national to receive a Nobel Prize for science, made the breakthrough in the 1970s, at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, but her role in the fight against malaria remained little known until just a few years ago.
In May 1967, Chairman Mao initiated a secret drug discovery project, known as Project 523, to search for a malaria cure. The project was launched in response to a request from the North Vietnamese government whose soldiers, engaged in jungle warfare, were being killed by malaria in greater numbers than by American soldiers.
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During the first few years Project 523 focused on developing a modern synthetic cure for malaria but yielded no results. The project then shifted its focus towards traditional medicines and that is when Dr Tu, who was a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, became involved. In the course of her research, Dr Tu began examining the properties of wormwood after reading a 4th Century Chinese text titled, “Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve”. This led Dr Tu and her team to the discovery that artemisinin, a compound extracted from wormwood was highly effective in treating malaria.
Artemisinin remains the most effective treatment for malaria, and artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) are recommended by the World Health Organization as the first-line treatment for malaria. Dr Tu’s discovery has helped save millions of lives in Asia and Africa and many believe that recognition of her contribution to global healthcare is long overdue. Although artemisinin was discovered in the 1970s it only became widely used in the battle against malaria at the turn of the century, as growing resistance to chloroquine led governments and health authorities to adopt artemisinin-based combination therapies.
Since it was announced that a Chinese national had won the 2015 Nobel Prize for medicine, Chinese media has been busy celebrating the achievement. For decades, China has yearned for the international recognition that a Nobel Prize confers. Across China this achievement is being portrayed as an endorsement of China’s academic standards, valuable scientific contributions and long-awaited international recognition for traditional medicine.
The fact that Dr. Tu’s Nobel Prize breakthrough came from a project initiated by Chairman Mao and the cure stems from traditional Chinese medicine, has enabled Chinese media outlets to fully promote the award as a national achievement. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, called the award a “landmark success” and acknowledged that Dr Tu had brought about “an intense sense of national pride”.
Speaking to the state news agency, Liu Qingquan, the president of the Beijing Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, praised the value of local wisdom and traditional medicine. “This is a proud moment for the Chinese people, and even more so for traditional Chinese medical practitioners. The development of traditional Chinese medicine must be mutually integrated with science,” he said.
The publicity this award has brought Dr Tu comes as a great change for the modest researcher who had previously been denied membership to the prestigious scientific institution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and received only limited acclaim in China for her achievement. China’s prestigious academic institutions are known to be extremely hierarchical and success in these organizations is more commonly a result of relationships, seniority and political connections than scientific achievements.
Despite her newly found fame, Dr Tu continues to be modest and was keen to link her achievements with the value of traditional Chinese medicine. In a statement earlier this week, Dr Tu called artemisinin “a gift for the world’s people from traditional Chinese medicine” and concluded the Nobel award “indicates that the research science of the Chinese traditional medicine have won high attention from the internal science community.”
Interestingly, the sudden championing of Dr Tu’s long forgotten achievements has been documented in some Chinese media. The Communist Party’s media outlet, People’s Daily, openly criticized China’s leading academic institutions for previously ignoring Dr Tu, stating, she “is frank about her disapprovals and disinclined towards bootlicking. If such characteristics cannot fully account for her being rejected by CAS, they can at least say something about her integrity as a scientist”.
The People’s Daily also noted the irony that “a scientist who is not institutionally admitted wins the highest international acknowledgement” and suggested it was “high time we reconsider our standards and procedure of granting membership of CAS”.
Professor Wang Yuanfeng a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, also called for CAS to reconsider its policies, “Tu Youyou’s winning of the Nobel Prize can provide impetus for further reform of China’s science and technology system,” adding that, “despite the quite vigorous reforms over the past two years to national science and technology planning and management, and to the system of academicians, there are still many problems in the system and institutions of China’s scientific endeavors.”
Having earned China’s first ever Nobel Prize in science it is hope that Dr Tu will finally receive the recognition and respect that she deserves for this medical breakthrough which has helped save the lives of millions.