AsianScientist (Oct. 6, 2015) – Tu Youyou, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) expert, has received one half of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for developing an anti-malarial drug, artemisinin, based on ancient herbal medicine.
Tu is the first Chinese woman national to win a science Nobel Prize, and only the 12th woman to win the medicine prize since its inception in 1901. When used in combination therapy, artemisinin is estimated to reduce mortality from malaria by more than 20 percent overall and by more than 30 percent in children.
Malaria, a mosquito-borne disease caused by single-cell parasites, was traditionally treated by chloroquine or quinine, but with declining success in the late 1960s. From a large-scale screen of herbal remedies in malaria-infected animals, an extract from the plant Artemisia annua emerged as an interesting candidate. Guided by ancient literature, Tu developed a purification procedure and isolated the active agent, Artemisinin. Artemisinin rapidly kills malaria parasites at an early stage of their development, which explains its unprecedented potency in the treatment of severe malaria.
Born in 1930 in China, Tu graduated from the pharmacy department at Beijing Medical University in 1955. Since 2000, Tu has been chief professor at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. She also won the 2011 Lasker DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for her research.
The other half of the prize went jointly to Japanese researcher Satoshi Omura and Irish researcher William C. Campbell for their discovery of a new drug, Avermectin. Newer derivatives of Avermectin have radically lowered the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, among other parasitic diseases.
Satoshi Omura, professor emeritus at Kitasato University in Japan, searched for novel strains of Streptomyces bacteria as a source for new bioactive compounds, and isolated 50 of the most promising strains. Campbell, a parasitologist based in the US, acquired Omura’s Streptomyces cultures and purified the active compound, Avermectin, from one of these strains, Streptomyces avermitilis. Avermectin was subsequently chemically modified to a more effective compound called Ivermectin, which turned out to be effective in both animals and humans against a variety of parasites.
Diseases caused by parasites constitute a major global health problem and have plagued humankind for millennia. The discoveries of Artemisinin and Avermectin have helped to reduce the suffering of millions of people with parasitic diseases, which disproportionately affect the world’s poorest.
Source: Nobel Foundation.
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