TCM Wins Nobel Prize

 

October 2015—Chinese medicine researcher Dr. Tu Youyou became the first citizen of the People's Republic of China to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences, a significant step forward for Traditional Chinese Medicine in the Western world.

The discipline of Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) has helped to establish important standards for the efficacy and safety of modern medicine through systematic research. However, due to a lack of awareness and funding for its research, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) continues to fight for recognition and acceptance in mainstream healthcare, despite having over 2000 years of recorded history.

A significant milestone was achieved, however, when Dr. Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the research conducted by her and her team in TCM.

Dr. Tu Youyou

In the midst of the Chinese Cultural Revolution the 1960s, the Chinese government was up against an urgent medical dilemma: drug-resistant malaria. On May 23, 1967, Mao Zedong established a covert military project, codenamed 'Project 523', to research a solution.

 
 Dr. Tu working with her mentor, Professor Lou Zhicen, circa 1950s.  Image: Public Domain

Dr. Tu working with her mentor, Professor Lou Zhicen, circa 1950s. Image: Public Domain

 

With the top Western-trained experts in malaria shunned and persecuted, the government turned to the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing. In 1959, Dr. Tu was recruited for the daunting task, and was sent off to the rainforests of Hainan in southern China to research a natural treatment against malaria.

"I saw a lot of children who were in the latest stages of malaria," recalls Dr. Tu in a statement to New Scientist in 2011. "Those kids died very quickly."

Extracting from Ancient Text

The study of Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on more than 2000 years of recorded history, including case studies, observations, and theories. To modern science, the terminologies such as "Qi," "wind" or "Yin and Yang" may seem foreign with an air of mysticism, they in fact descriptions of documented natural phenomena.

In one ancient text written more than 1600 years ago titled, The Manual of Clinical Practice and Emergency Remedies by Ge Hong, Dr. Tu identified a treatment against "intermittent fevers," indicative of malaria. The treatment required the patient to drink a tea made by steeping sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) in water.

 

Ge Hong. By Gan Bozong (Tang period, 618-907). Image: Creative Commons

Artemisia annua. Image: Oceancetaceen - Alice Chodura [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Dr. Tu and her team set out to identify the active ingredient in the plant which targets the malaria-causing parasite. In her study, Dr. Tu remarked that boiling the wormwood likely damaged the active ingredient; a different method of preparation was needed. Using an ether-based solvent, Dr. Tu and her team were able to successfully extract the active ingredient, called artemisinin, to be used in animal trials. The compound was found to be 100 percent effective when administered to mice and monkeys.

 
 Dr. Tu Youyou, circa 1980s.  Image: Yang Wumin/Xinhua, via Associated Press

Dr. Tu Youyou, circa 1980s. Image: Yang Wumin/Xinhua, via Associated Press

 

Wanting to see something more substantial, Dr. Tu volunteered to be the first human subject to study the efficacy of artimisinin against malaria. The trial – and subsequent trials with two other colleagues – proved to be successful.

The cure for malaria was discovered, and her work was published anonymously in 1977.

On October 5, 2015, at the age of 84, Dr. Tu Youyou was finally recognized for her contribution in the discovery of artemisinin and its treatment against malaria, and became the first citizen of the People's Republic of China to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

 
ResearchTim ChowTCM