Youyou Tu on Monday became the 12th woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine for her discovery of a novel treatment for Malaria. Ms. Tu had received the Lasker Prize for her contribution to the field of medicine four years ago. Ms Tu’s research involved finding an alternative cure for malaria as the standard chloroquine treatment was fast losing effectiveness to the parasites which developed a resistance. She started work on this with her colleagues in the 1960s - during China’s Cultural Revolution – and zeroed in on a plant called Artemisia annua, commonly known as sweet wormwood.
The question-answer session after the announcements of the Nobel winners from the Karolinska Institutet focused on Ms. Tu and her work. Below are edited excerpts:
On Youyou Tu’s significance of incorporating Chinese herbal medicine into treatment.
The effect of this herb on fever was well established 1,700 years ago,. Youyou Tu is the first one to elucidate and extract the biologically active component from the herb. That was a paradigm shift in the field of medicine that allowed large scale production and clinical investigation of this medicine (Artemisinin)
Is it an acknowledgement of how western science is looking at ancient, alternate systems of medicine has changed?
There are many sources of finding how to develop drugs, you can’t neglect the long experiences (of the ancient systems). It can be inspirational to develop new drugs but we’re not going to use the old herbs as they are. Very sophisticated methods were used to extract the active compounds (from the plants) and it shouldn’t be underestimated at all
On how Artemisinin is manufactured today:
One half of the method still involves conventional culturing of the plant Artemisia annua, and the other involves a semisynthetic step (photoactivation and crytallisation) to get better concentration of the drug.
On resistance by parasites to the drug Nothing in Africa, but last year there was a resistance in SE Asia. To reduce this resistance Artemisinin is combined with other commonly taken drugs, but the compound has an early onset in the life cycle of the malarial parasite -- that’s groundbreaking effect that has reduced
mortality in severe cases of malaria.
On Youyou Tu’s reaction to the news:
We haven’t been able to get in touch with Tu, but hope that like every year there would be a positive reaction to this as well
On the patent situation for the drugs
No patents that are up and running. There are a number of companies producing these free of cost: Merk (Ivomectin), Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis (Artemisinin). It is an unusual situation where industrial giants have teamed up with the World Health Organisation to develop and distribute these medicines on a non-profit basis.