In 2015, the first Nobel prize for traditional Chinese medicine was awarded. In October of that year, the Nobel prize committee awarded one half of the 2015 prize in physiology/medicine to Tu Youuou of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing for her “discoveries concerning a novel therapy against malaria”.

Awarding the Nobel prize for traditional Chinese medicine research

Tu Youuou is the first person to win a Nobel prize for traditional Chinese medicine-related research

In 1969. she became head of mission for a project set up by Mao Ze Dong to find a cure for malaria. She had her team scour the Chinese classics (these are medical texts written over the past 2,000 years upon which the practice of traditional Chinese medicine is based and contain myriad formulae for acupuncture and herbal treatment). They were looking for references to fighting diseases which sounded like malaria. In Ge Hong’s Eastern Jin Dynasty (265 – 420 AD) Manual of Clinical Practice and Emergency Remedies, they found reference to drinking the juice extracted from sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua).

The team then isolated artemisinin, an active compound in the wormwood, which seemed to counteract malaria-spreading parasites. However, initial clinical trials proved unsuccessful. Then Tu Youyou returned to the original text for closer inspection and, based upon rereading, adjusted the extraction method to avoid boiling the formulation. Tests on mice and monkeys now yielded a hundred per cent success rate, and in 1972, tests on humans provided the same result.

The drug works by rapidly killing malaria parasites at an early stage of development, and artemisin-based combination therapies are now recommended by the World Health Organisation as a front-line treatment for malaria, largely taking over from chloroquine. It is estimated that more than one billion artemisinin-based courses of treatment have been administered since 2000.

To Youyou’s Nobel lecture following her acceptance of the Nobel prize for traditional Chinese medicine-inspired research was broadcast live on on 7 December 2015.

To read more about traditional Chinese medicine, take a look at the History of Acupuncture.

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