Considered a source of cultural pride within China itself, the millennia-old practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine is typically dismissed by western medicine as a collection of folklore and pseudoscience. However, in a historic first for the prestigious Nobel Prize, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been co-awarded to a Chinese researcher that used ancient Chinese medical texts to develop a life-saving treatment, that has successfully been used against malarial infections.
Nobel recipient Tu Youyou, now 84 years old and currently with the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, was a medical researcher during China’s Cultural Revolution. In the late 1960s, the Chinese government initiated a research program called "Project 523", to investigate new treatments for malarial infections, in response to an epidemic being suffered by soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Tu, appointed as head of the project, studied ancient texts on traditional Chinese remedies, looking for clues that might yield a cure.
Tu eventually found a reference to Chinese qinghao, or sweet wormwood, being used as a malaria treatment in a text dating from 340 AD, and extracted what her team found to be the active compound, now known as artemisinin, from the plant. After a period of trial and error in the preparation of the compound, artemisinin went into trials in human subjects, with Tu volunteering to be the first subject in the trials. The compound was a success, and has since saved the lives of millions around the world.
Despite having accepted the honor of a Nobel Award, Tu remains a modest woman, saying she does not want to be subject to the limelight: “I do not want fame. In our day, no essay was published under the author’s byline.” Tu is also unique in that, despite her accomplishment, she has no medical degree or doctorate, of which is unusual amongst Nobel laureates.