Tu Youyou: Discoverer of Artemisinin

China Plus Published: 2019-09-20 10:54:41
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An awarding ceremony for the national medals, the Friendship Medals, and honorary titles will be held on Sunday in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Nobel Medicine Prize 2015 co-winner Chinese Tu Youyou (L) receives her medal from King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf during the 2015 Nobel Prize award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Stockholm on December 10, 2015. [File Photo: VCG]

Nobel Medicine Prize 2015 co-winner Chinese Tu Youyou (L) receives her medal from King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf during the 2015 Nobel Prize award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Stockholm on December 10, 2015. [File Photo: VCG]

The laureates include a wide range of prominent figures who have made tremendous contributions in fields including science and technology, law-making, peacekeeping missions, art and culture, as well as cooperation between China and foreign countries. Starting from Monday, CRI will bring you a series of reports on some of them.

CRI's Guo Yan has the story of a Chinese scientist, whose discovery has led to a revolutionary treatment for malaria and saved millions of lives, and she is a recipient of the Medal of the Republic.

Tu youyou won the 2015 Nobel Prize for the discovery of artemisinin, a drug that is now the top treatment for malaria. Tu has risked her life in her dedication to finding a cure for malaria.For decades, she worked almost anonymously before winning the Nobel Prize in 2015.

"Ancient Chinese medicine has valuable treasure. We should work hard to tap into the rich resources in it. Artimisinin was discovered from it. Through research, I find that Chinese medicine and western medicine each has its own advantages and can be complementary to each other. Proper combination of the two will generate bigger potentials in medical development."

Born in 1930, Tu Youyou suffered from a lung disease when she was young, but Chinese medicine saved her life. She developed a keen interest in traditional Chinese medicine, dedicating her life to being a pharmacologist.

She started her work at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences and later served as head of the "Anti-malarial Chinese Herbal Medicine Group." The researcher and her team helped isolate an anti-malaria medicine inspired by an ancient, traditional remedy. The discovery of artemisinin has helped significantly reduce the mortality rates of malaria patients.

A Nobel committee judge pointed out the significance of her work.

"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. Your discoveries represent a paradigm shift in medicine, which has not only provided revolutionary therapies for patients suffering from devastating parasitic diseases, but also promoted well-being and prosperity for individuals and society."

The achievement didn't come easy. Tu explains that her discoveries were made after years of repeated tries and failures.

"We have many traditional Chinese medicines, but we can not use them as they are. I experimented on over 200 kinds of Chinese medicines and I tried about 380 extraction methods in total. They all failed. I named my starting point as No.91, because I found the effective component after 191 experiments."

To ensure that the drug would be safe in humans, at one time Tu even tested the medicine on her own.

"I was determined to find the effects of the medicine that year. I made a report to ask for permission to test the drug on myself. I was the team leader and took the responsibility. Some of my colleagues also participated in the program. We went into Dongzhimen Hospital for the test."

Jiang Tingliang is former President of the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica of the Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.He says he was impressed by Tu's strong determination in conducting her research.

"I was impressed by her persistence in her work and scientific research without which, she couldn't have made such remarkable achievements. She'd been persistent from the very beginning. "

Dr. Ma Yue works at the Artemimsinin research center of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.She says she feels really proud of her teacher and is inspired by her achievements.

"It was several years ago that I first met with professor Tu. She looked like a kind granny. I was astonished at her achievements when she was awarded the Noble prize. Professor Tu's doctoral students tended to draw attention. So I had to work harder. My professor has spent her whole life doing research. I should learn from her down-to-earth method."

Tu Youyou also won China's top science award in 2017 for her outstanding contributions to scientific and technological innovation. But she didn't rest on her laurels after winning these awards. She continued to work at perfecting her discoveries. The 89-year-old announced in June that her team has proposed solutions to the problem of artemisinin resistance, providing new evidence that artemisinin is still "the best weapon" against malaria, the world's No. 1 insect-borne infectious disease.

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