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Malaria has been a debilitating disease for millions all over the world and during the mid 20th century, it was even worse. At the time, only a few anti-malarial drugs were made from quinine but it was found that eventually, people developed resistance to those drugs as well. While drug resistance is a common phenomenon these days, mind you, in those times it was almost a death sentence to have a disease and no cure because ‘cutting edge technology’ did not exist. In the case of Malaria, the world could breathe fresh air in the late 1970s, thanks to Researcher Tu Youyou! So, what was the hype about?

She discovered a new anti-malarial drug known as ‘artemisinin’ but what was fascinating is that she managed to do so by studying Chinese herbal medicine!

So, who is Tu Youyou?

Researcher Tu Youyou is a Chinese scientist who studied ancient old texts to identify a drug molecule for Malaria that saved millions of lives in the future! She is the first Nobel laureate to have won the award without any doctoral degree, medical degree nor did she participate in any study abroad program. This is why she is also known as the ‘Three without scientist‘ as these three things are considered to be a rather pre-requisite in most of the laureates that we see.

Her personal motivation in the field of infectious diseases is because of her own affliction with tuberculosis at the age of 16. This is why she decided to enter the field of medicine and look for therapeutic options for people like her! She began her studies by learning how to classify plants and extract their active ingredients, which is why she was so successful in the future when she discovered the therapy for Malaria.

Gambiae mosquito – Malarial vector (Credit: CDC Public Health Library)

Dawn of a new age anti-malarial

In any therapeutic intervention, we see three ways of fighting back. One is that we can create new drugs to alleviate the disease; we could repurpose an old drug; or we could vaccinate ourselves (applicable only in the case of infectious organisms). She chose to try the first option where she discovered a whole new drug molecule.

During the Vietnam war, many of the soldiers were getting infected with malaria and it was found that most of them were resistant to chloroquine that is usually administered. The strains were found to be the resistant type and this is when she was called upon to study them in situ so that she could come up with something sooner than later. While pouring over old ancient herbal medicine texts, her team tested over 240,000 compounds but to no avail.

Then, one day they came across a text detailing the use of sweet wormwood, a plant that was used to treat intermittent fevers. While at that time, it was used for this purpose, she tried to extract the active compounds in this plant to investigate them further. The problem was that there was suspicion that the active compound was deteriorating due to the harsh process that they were using. This is when she invented a new technique where she used an ether-based solvent to let it boil at a lower temperature and voila!

Sweet Wormwood Benefits, Uses & History: Gaia Herbs®
Sweet wormwood plant (Artemisia annua)

Taking the leap of faith

Once the compound was extracted, she tested it on monkeys and even mice and they achieved a 100% success rate! But that was not all. The real challenge was to see if it worked in humans as well. This is where her bravery came into the place where she decided to be the first volunteer in this study. Along with her, two of her colleagues and 21 other people were tested and they all were back to being healthy. A year later, she finally managed to distill the actual active compound, what we know now as artemisinin.

Impact of the discovery

It goes without saying that they finally managed to find a cure for drug-resistant malaria at the time. But the impact was not just in the thousands but millions! People all over the world benefitted from this discovery and not only that, generation after generation for nearly 50 years has reaped the fruit of this medicine. This discovery was her one way of giving back to the world and helping those in need, the reason why she entered the field of research.

References

Tu youyou (2020). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/tu-youyou

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