Malaria is endemic to tropical regions and is usually acquired from being bitten by the female Anopheles mosquito. In the early part of the twentieth century, there were no treatments for the disease. But did you know that the cure for Malaria was developed in the early seventies?
A Chinese pharmaceutical chemist, Tu Youyou, discovered artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, substances used to treat Malaria. Her discovery was a breakthrough in the 20th-century tropical medicine industry.
Who is Tu Youyou?
Tu Youyou was born on December 30, 1930, in Ningbo, a city on the east coast of China. She was the only daughter of a banker and a housewife. Youyou’s family considered education as their top priority, allowing her to attend the best schools in the region. Youyou attended private schools in Ningbo.
Youyou contracted tuberculosis when she was sixteen, causing her to miss school for two years. This experience led her to decide what she wanted to take up when she graduated. She wanted to have medical skills to keep herself healthy and cure other people. She attended the Medical School of Peking University after being accepted by the Department of Pharmacy.
When Youyou was on her second year of university training, Peking University’s medical school formed an independent school which became the Beijing Medical College. The medical studies at the time were significantly improving, with professors who gained education and advanced degrees in western countries.
The great doctor learned skills that she would be able to utilize in the future, such as classifying and identifying medicinal plants, extracting active ingredients from them, using the correct solvent in extraction, and most importantly, studying and determining the chemical structures of the isolated active ingredients.
Upon graduation, Youyou was assigned to work in the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica of the newly established Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine under the China Ministry of Health. Her first research was on Lobelia chinensis, a herb commonly prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine to treat Schistosomiasis, a disease caused by Schistosoma flatworm.
She then completed another study on Radix stellariae before going for a full-time training program under the Ministry of Health. The program included western medical background, introducing Youyou to modern techniques. (Source: Nobel Prize)
Youyou continued her career in medicine, receiving prestigious awards such as the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award in 2011 and the coveted Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine. She is the first Chinese female to have received a Nobel prize in any category. (Source: The Hindu)
In 1967, North Vietnam requested China’s help during the Vietnam war. Malaria has been affecting Vietnamese soldiers severely. Youyou was appointed to lead the secret Project 523, an effort to discover a treatment for Malaria. Youyou and her team reviewed ancient Chinese medicinal literature.
Their task was to identify plants with medicinal value and determine which would help eliminate the Plasmodium parasites responsible for causing Malaria. The team successfully refined their process of extracting and isolating a nontoxic extract from sweet wormwood that effectively eliminated Plasmodium parasites in 1971 upon testing it with mice and monkeys.
A year later, the team successfully isolated the active compound in the extracts, called artemisinin. Youyou and two other colleagues tested it on themselves first, followed by 21 patients in Hainan province. All of them recovered.
Her efforts led to the successful creation of the cure against Malaria. It has been used globally and has saved millions of people from mosquito-induced disease. (Source: The Hindu)