When you think of a Nobel Prize winner in biomedical science, you may imagine someone from a famous institute or university working in a big flashy laboratory full of PhD students and postdocs with the newest laboratory equipment. However, this is not the case for Tu Youyou, who was recently awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.
In the late 60s, as a scientist well-versed in both traditional Chinese and Western medicine, she was asked to lead a project that aimed to reduce mortality caused by malaria. Tu and her team tested hundreds of herbal extracts and their work resulted in finding artemisinin, the most effective anti-malarial drug in use today. The drug was isolated from Artemisia annua commonly known as sweet wormwood. The idea was taken from an ancient Chinese book. Tu and her team needed some time to figure out how to extract and purify the active substance, which is known now as artemisinin. When the drug was discovered, the clinical trials weren’t possible and so she and a handful of her coworkers volunteered as the first test subjects. Artemisinin and its derivatives are the most effective drugs against all parasite stages of malaria’, don’t cause severe side effects and are effective against chloroquine-resistant malaria parasites.
Despite the successful discovery, her work wasn’t published until the late 70s and even after that, she was relatively unknown even among the malaria researchers. Still, Tu pushed on with her research and at 84 years of age is still a professor at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Before receiving the Nobel Prize, she advised malaria researches to keep “fighting for the healthcare of all humans.” Her Nobel Prize finally sheds light on an unusual but incredible scientific career and achievements.