In 2015, the World Health Organization estimated that in the last 15 years mortality rates from malaria have fallen by 60% worldwide, and in South Asia that rate has declined by 85%. One contributing factor was the distribution of the drug artemisinin, discovered in the 1970’s by a team led by Tu YouYou.
In 1967, the Chinese government set up a secret military project to discover new ways to treat malaria, Tu joined Project 523 two years later. Tu was born in 1930, in Ningbo, China and attended Peking University Medical School where she studied pharmaceutical science. She also trained for a few years in traditional Chinese medicine. It was this background in traditional medicine that inspired her in her search for new ways to treat malaria, and in 1969 she had the idea to begin screening Chinese herbs. After testing thousands of traditional recipes, she and her team found qinghao, or Artemisia annua which was described in a fourth century text as a malaria remedy.
In 1977, Tu created an artificial version, dihydroartemisinin, which was more soluble and potent than the native plant compound and provided the basis for the anti-malarial drugs in use today. The WHO calls it an “essential medicine” and it is considered the safest and most fast acting of the available treatments.
For many years, Tu’s discovery went uncredited; her first studies were published anonymously. She later said, “I do not want fame. In our day, no essay was published under the author’s byline.” Researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health looked into the history of the drug and the original research notes to find the story of how Tu’s work revolutionized the treatment of malaria.
For her contributions to the discovery and research into artemisinin, Tu was awarded the 2011 Lasker Award in clinical medicine and the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015. Since her discoveries, she has continued to research artemisinin, leading a lab in Beijing.
Suggested by Sweta Batni.
Written by Mary Ratliff